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Lisa Belkin Headshot

I Wouldn't Let My Son Play Football, Either

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Watching the Ravens and 49ers knock helmets yesterday I thought back to an article I wrote two years ago about parents and the dangers of football. A college player had killed himself, and an autopsy found years of post concussive damage that might have led to depression and, in turn, his suicide.

Will this lead parents to start pulling their sons off football teams, I wondered?

At the time I concluded that not enough was known to make that a logical response. Of course, I conceded, few of our parenting responses are logical. Humans repeatedly show themselves to be spectacularly poor judges of risk, and parents seem even less adept. We refuse to let junior walk to school, even though the odds of him being kidnapped is minuscule, particularly compared to the very real risk of a crash while driving the same route, or that of diabetes and obesity from never walking anywhere at all.

So, at the time, I cautioned that pulling our children out of a sport because of what seemed a remote possibility of long-term injury was probably an over-reaction.

I don't feel that way anymore.

I've changed my mind mostly because we have more data. Like the report last fall from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finding a nearly four-fold increase in Alzheimer's and Lou Gehrig's disease upon autopsy of former NFL players. Like the work being done at Boston University, finding evidence of CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, on nearly every autopsied football player's brain, including the teenagers in the group. Or the nearly 3,400 lawsuits filed by former players or their surviving relatives, accusing the NFL of knowing of the dangers but not mitigating, or even publicly acknowledging, them. Or the now infamous Pee Wee game in Southbridge, MA, during which five children. some as young as 10, suffered concussions.

As a result, parents are starting to rethink the sport. The website VOXXI reported last month that "more and more moms and dads, or players, are deciding against playing football with recent participation numbers revealing a 15 to 20 percent decrease." President Barack Obama is apparently among those with second thoughts, telling The New Republic "I'm a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son, I'd have to think long and hard before I let him play football."

So would I.

True, they are too old for Pee Wee ball now (and were never really interested in the sport) so for me the point is theoretical. Still, in the risk/benefit equation that is parenting, this choice is becoming one of the easy ones. A sport that rattles children's brains is probably not a sport that our children should be playing. At least not with current rules, equipment and win-at-all-cost attitudes. The risk of lifelong damage is too high. Where two years ago I wondered if parents were being a tad over-protective in taking their children off the field, today I wonder whether they are being reckless in allowing them to don pads and helmets and head out there in the first place.

Much safer to let them walk to school alone. Good exercise, too.