Letting Your Kids Play Football Isn't As Crazy As It Sounds

11/22/2016 01:45 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2016
Youth football players playing a game at Camp Lejeune, NC.
Photo by Lance Cpl. Paul Peterson (https://www.dvidshub.net/image/765886) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Youth football players playing a game at Camp Lejeune, NC.

There’s no question: football is the most popular spectator sport in the United States with over one-third of the country tuning in for the Super Bowl.

Despite the sport’s immense popularity, many parents are hesitant to let their children play it given the obvious injury risk. While there is risk for injury -- like any other sport -- letting your child play football might not be as crazy as it sounds.

Injury Risks

Think football is the leading cause of injury in youth sports? Think again. There are actually more per year injuries in basketball, a sport many would consider a “limited-contact sport” or even a “non-contact sport”. Of course, there is no tackling in basketball, but most players do not wear any pads. And players quickly run up and down a small court, possibly even a side-court which is smaller than the 84-foot high school courts. With all that stopping and running, there is the threat of rolling an ankle or tearing an ACL.

Ankle and foot injuries are the most common kind of injury in basketball. Health Grove broke down the most common types of injuries by sport. They found head injuries are the most common injuries in rugby, skiing, horseback riding, lacrosse, hockey and baseball. In football, however, finger injuries are most common.

Yes, there is a risk for concussions in football, a higher risk than most sports. But soccer is starting to catch up.

With football being a predominantly male sport, soccer is the leading cause of concussion among girls’ sports. And, as a whole, there are more concussions in girls’ sports than boys’ sports. That same Washington Post article also notes the biggest risk for concussions at the collegiate athletics level came among women’s ice hockey players -- not football players. Not to mention ACL tears are six times more likely in girls’ sports than boys’ sports. And most of those female athletes are not playing football.

There are several ways to decrease injury risks. Before the season starts, make sure your child is prepared. Being well-conditioned helps prevent fatigue-related injuries. Both strength and flexibility also decrease the risk for severe injuries. At the University of Florida in 1997, 78 percent of upper body injuries and 64 percent of lower body injuries were accrued by non-lifting athletes, according to Science Daily. And by flexibility, yes, stretching before exercising is key, but flexibility exercises in themselves further decrease injury risks.

Concerns for head trauma in football also might be a little overhyped. Athletes who played high school football from 1946 to 1956 -- with less protective headgear -- did not have an increased risk at developing a neurodegenerative disease later in life. Keep in mind, the concussion problem in football wasn’t formally addressed until 1994. And contact sports in general aren’t scientifically linked to brain disease.

Youth football isn’t the NFL either. Many would say the NFL has the world’s best athletes. Youth football teams have whichever 25-30 eight year olds sign up. If force is mass times acceleration, then the force in youth football is disproportionate to that of the NFL. They are not being hit by the best athletes in the world. They are being hit by their peers, most of whom won’t even play high school football. They are not being hit by JJ Watt; they’re being hit by JJ from math class in practice. And let’s face it, your kid probably isn’t going to play in the NFL, so the threat of them being hit by JJ Watt isn’t real.

Safer Positions

Even for those parents, who might be hesitant to let their kids play football, there are ways around the injury risk -- positions. Certain positions have a significantly lower injury risk. The most apparent low-injury risk position would be kicker. There is a reason why the NFL’s three oldest players are kickers: it is against the rules to hit a kicker while he is kicking. Roughing the kicker is a 15-yard penalty.

The same could be said for punters. Not only could the same player kick and punt for a team, but teams at lower levels tend to lack a quality kicker or punter, so a child who practices at such a position and specializes in it could be a major asset to a team. There are even a lot of scholarships out there for these kinds of players. But please, do not look that far ahead. It’s about a child enjoying themselves first.

Most NFL kickers use what is called a “soccer-style” kick when kicking field goals. It makes sense because just about every NFL kicker also played soccer growing up, as mentioned in a CBS News report. So if your child is playing soccer because you really do not want them playing football, there is a position they might be qualified to play -- especially with some practice before the season.

Kickers and punters need long snappers, yet again another low-injury risk “specialist” position. The downside here is there is not really a sport where a child would ever need to do this other than football, so they would need to spend more time learning technique and practicing before the season. Because no one is naturally trained in long snapping, it becomes a niche position for those who might not see the field otherwise.

Like kickers and punters, there is a 15-yard penalty when someone tries to hit a long snapper -- while they are snapping. They see more time than kickers and punters because they snap on both kicks and punts. Generally, the position would be better for a stronger kid or one who can throw a football well as it would make it easier to learn. But arm strength alone would not necessarily make one a successful long snapper without practice.

One could even argue quarterback is a “safe position” in youth football because of the emphasis on running. Just handing the ball off and backing up behind the play, opportunities for them to be hit in games are scarce. There is a 15-yard penalty for late hits on quarterbacks. And youth teams most likely are only going to attempt a pass five to ten times per game anyways.

It is also worth noting most concussions -- football’s most-feared injury -- occur during practice. But quarterbacks are non-contact players in practice, typically indicated by a red pinney. If they don’t play defense, then they might only be subjected to one or two hits during the week at most.

Benefits of Sport

The benefits of a child playing a sport are clear. Student-athletes are less likely to use drugs, more likely to graduate high school and less likely to be overweight/obese. They also tend to carry a higher GPA. And when sports are over and done with, they are more likely to thrive in the real world; they tend to earn more money than their non-athlete counterparts.

Why Football?

Regardless of what their parents want them to play, some kids just aren’t built to play another sport. Specifically, some kids who are on the bigger side might struggle with another fall sport like soccer or cross country -- where there is long-distance running involved. Sure, football requires endurance, but it is not constant running for linemen. And many coaches do their best to limit their linemen to one side of the ball -- offense or defense -- preventing fatigue, decreasing the risk for injury.

Perhaps football’s greatest benefit is its reputation as a no-cut sport -- even in high school. Anyone can sign up to play football (granted they make the weight limit in youth football). And there’s not exactly a prototypical football player. Football is not a major skill sport either like baseball or basketball. If someone can’t hit a baseball or hit a shot, they’re essentially useless in those sports. But there are several different positions in football and more opportunities for a child to find somewhere they could excel -- or at least play adequately.

With all sorts of different types of players comes all sorts of different types of people. It’s diverse and socioeconomic status is moot on the field: the best 11 play and everyone has to work together as a team.

As far as life lessons, football helps players overcome their fear of failure and gives them a quick opportunity to rebound. Often times, the failure can be physical -- if they are knocked down -- but then they have an opportunity at redemption the next play.

Also consider a child’s happiness. Nobody likes those overbearing sports parents, who push their kids into a sport and yell at everyone during their child’s games. It happens in every sport. But there is no reason a child should be playing a sport they don’t want to play, especially if they want to play another one in-season. It would not be beneficial to force a kid who wants to play football to play soccer or vice versa.

CONVERSATIONS