The movie Concussion, starring Will Smith and his odd African accent, opens on Christmas Day this year. It’s a movie about a forensic pathologist, Dr. Bennett Omalu, who came to odds with the National Football League (NFL) over his research and study into chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which can be the end result of one too many hits to the noggin in the form of concussions. Dr. Omalu found the link between concussions and CTE, which in several NFL players, led to death via suicide. Obviously the NFL was none to pleased with this as they’ve been slow until more recently in acknowledging just how damaging the sport can be. While I love football dearly, the NFL’s dealings with concussions and head trauma has left much to be desired, especially by former players. They’ve attempted to make some changes in areas that are most likely to be the highest impact collisions – and those most likely to cause real damage – like moving the kickoff up 15 yards and reducing open field collisions, causing most returns to be touchbacks. as opposed to guys like Desean Jackson taking their lives (and Redskins’ seasons) into their own hands, but it’s hard to soften the blow from a sport where people intentionally take aim at you, physically.
Man, that was a bonehead play.
But I’m not here to argue about how terrible the NFL is. If you’re a fan of the sport, and I am, you already know how much of a clusterfuck the NFL, their rules, studies, PR, and ideologies can be. I love the sport in spite of how it’s run. Besides, football is the most popular sport in America, so what do I know?
What I do know is that my son won’t be playing football.
I am a southerner. While I didn’t live in the south for all of my youth, I come from a family of southerners and football players. I’ve had at least four cousins make it to the NFL. I went to high school in Alabama at a school constantly in the conversation for state titles, though we always run up against Hoover, and anybody familiar with high school football is familiar with Hoover (Birmingham). Point is, Friday Night Lights is a real thing down south. I saw it. Me? I witnessed it from afar because what I learned early was that since I wasn’t going to the NFL, I might as well take up this thespian thing. But my southern-ness means that football is a thing for me. One of my nephews plays football (another is into mixed-martial arts and wrestling).
I know that all of these kids aren’t going to get injured. I know every kid isn’t going to get a concussion. I know that you are just as likely to get a concussion playing soccer as you are football as a youth. I’ve been hit upside the head with a metal baseball bat and in an attempt to hurdle my back fence once, failed, and went face first into the concrete. I’ve had concussions. I’m a boy. We get those. All anybody did was keep me awake. And I’m still here.
It’s not really the concussions, and the possible CTE, that lead me away from football. It’s the gruesome injuries I’ve seen that tend to turn me away. I realize that many of them are freak accidents, but good gracious. To be fair, I do realize that freak accidents can happen in all sports (see Ware, Kevin; University of Louisville), but when something tragic happens in basketball, it’s a shock.
Meanwhile, it seems like every summer we hear about some high school kid dropping dead on a football field. And the high school years and beyond are what have me most concerned. (I realize that the likelihood of significant injury in Pop Warner is very, very low.)
At one football game in high school, I remember one of my friends, and football player, having his arm shattered by one of our own players who irresponsibly attempted to spear a pile of players on the ground. My friend was carted off the field and his arm never worked right again. My former barber in Alabama broke his neck playing high school football and luckily wasn’t paralyzed. Almost every week on television, we see some player go down with who knows what kind of injury. It’s a sport that requires injury. And while I enjoy it, I look at my son and want to toss a basketball in his direction. Maybe (well, most likely) he won’t go pro, but he’s more likely to end up in one piece.
Granted, I also know TONS of people who played football in high school and college who are perfectly fine and operating at full capacity in society. And letting the extreme incidents color my entire perspective about my child’s ability to play a sport that is absolutely one of the best ways to learn teamwork, camaraderie, and discipline is extreme in and of itself. It’s entirely likely that my son could play football, max out in high school, or college and then go off to be a neurosurgeon, world-class blogger, or the guy who invents that thing you don’t even know that you need yet. But mine eyes have seen too much. They’ve seen severe injuries. And I can’t shake that.
If my son tells me he wants to play football, I’m going to have to sit down and have a talk with him about why I’m not comfortable and that might suck for him. But the way I feel right now, I can’t in good conscience walk my son onto a football field. Even with all of the stats and research at my disposal, what we DO know, is that some not-insignificant number of football players are going to get injured, some severely, and even die during practice. It might not be statistically significant, but you can’t tell me that reading about a 16-year-old who died at playing football isn’t signficant in a holistic sense. Even one is too much for me, and there are always a few per year.
I love the sport and I would never tell anybody else what to do with their child. Again, I have lots of family that plays and even my nephew loves it and I encourage him to be great.
It’s football, baby. I watch it religiously. I argue about players and stats with my friends and hope to do the same with my son while he prepares for basketball, soccer, or track and field. Or baseball. One of the some-risk/high-reward sports as opposed to the high-risk/high-reward unless you blow out your knee world of football. The cautionary tales are just too hard for me to ignore.
So I won’t.