How Do You Feel About Youth Football?

Anyone who's ever given thought to the topic should read "The Choice," a thorough and thought-provoking article by Patrick Hruby from SportsOnEarth that addresses one basic question: "Should you let your child play football?" The article opens and ends with a mom whose son started playing when he was 4. Her family is an NFL family through and through, with a father, uncle, two brothers, and many cousins who've played professionally. Football and everything it stands for is ingrained in all of her memories and in her very identity. And yet because of the growing concerns over the long-term risks of brain injury--which we've covered recently--she's starting to doubt whether her son, now 7, should play. "Deep down, there's a side of me that would love him to go to the NFL and keep up the tradition," she says in the story. "Do I want him on a football field? Absolutely. Do I know the repercussions? Absolutely. Do I think he should play? As a mom, absolutely not." Her son actually doesn't play anymore, because he's simply not interested. But if he changes his mind, neither she nor her husband know for sure what they'll do.

The article takes a hard look at the game at all levels, and reveals some unsettling information about the lengths the NFL has gone to in order to keep kids interested in the sport, including putting out now-discredited scientific reports maintaining that concussions don't pose health risks (?!). It also details the efforts being made by researchers, sports medicine experts, neurologists, and coaches to minimize the potential damage inflicted by concussions, in the form of things like helmets with sensors and performance analysis and correction.

This quote, from University of North Carolina public health professor Lewis Margolis, M.D., stuck with me: "I'm not saying that everyone should be placed into bubbles. But we have enough evidence now to know that there are harmful consequences from these traumatic brain injuries. We know that. And kids are exposed to this. To continue to allow children to participate [in football] in an unencumbered way, to me, is no different than exposing them to an untested medicine or medical device. Only it's being done without the tools, procedures and protections essential to medical research."

I was eager to get a reaction to this story from my brother-in-law, who's in his fifth decade of either playing or coaching football. Both of his sons played football starting at a young age, and one played through college (as did my husband). He could relate to the mom in the article, because he "loved the game and everything about it, then started having doubts after the head trauma issues came out." As a coach, he has what he calls a non-scientific theory about head injury: "Some kids are more prone to it than others. I have seen this often and am convinced there is relevance to it, no different than someone is more susceptible to illness or other injuries, such as weak shoulders or ankles." When he thinks about whether parents should let their child play at a youth level, he cites the lack of evidence of major problems for the kids whose football careers end in high school. (Although I can't help but think about the research showing that 7- and 8-year-old boys absorb roughly 80 blows to the head each season. Nothing good can come from that.)

Knowing the joy the sport has brought to my husband, brother-in-law, and nephews, I finished the article certain of one thing: I'm glad I don't have a son.

Read "The Choice" here, and let me know what you think.

Image: Child playing football outdoors in yard via Shutterstock

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