As I await tonight's advance screening in Boston of Sony Pictures' movie, Concussion, which opens nationwide on Christmas Day, the polarized debate over football has once again reached a fever pitch.
In contrast to recent battles in the now 110-year war over football, MomsTEAM Institute of Youth Sports Safety, the non-profit I have headed for the last fifteen years, is not merely an interested spectator this time around.
That's because Sony Pictures chose the Institute as its partner in its Dance or Donate #ForThePlayers social media campaign; an initiative designed not just to publicize the movie but to promote our 15-year effort to make youth football and all sports safer (which is why the Institute is hosting the Boston screening)
Like it or not, I have been drawn directly into the fray.
Not surprisingly, the Institute and I have been taking some pretty savage hits on social media from those who believe that any organization that fails to join the call for an immediate end to football as we know it in America is, by definition, their sworn enemy.
The truth is that I'm not a football apologist, CTE denier, or anti-football zealot. I am, and always have been, a pro-safety pragmatist.
With all due respect to Dr. Bennet Omalu, the hero of Concussion, a courageous and fellow truth-teller who I greatly admire, the reality is that, as terrible, frightening, and real as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the neurodegenerative disease he discovered in the brains of former NFL players, is - especially to those who once played or still play professional football, and their families and friends - and as gut-wrenching as it is to see, read about, or hear the stories of athletes whose lives have been affected or cut short by CTE, football is not going away any time in the foreseeable future, and, from all available evidence, is safer than it has ever been.
Personally, I believe kids should probably delay the start of tackle football until middle or high school. If I knew back when I had a son playing middle and high school football - a son who was forced by sports-related concussions to retire from both football and lacrosse before his junior year - what I know now, I would not have let him play. Knowing what I know now about the risks of football, it would be easy to simply tell parents who allow their children to play tackle football that they are committing child abuse by exposing them to the risk of ending up with CTE, and throw up my hands and walk away in disgust when they don't listen.
Or I could tell parents deciding whether to let their child start playing tackle football that, if they do let them play - a decision that is theirs, and not mine, to make - that, before they do, they make sure the program puts their child's safety first: by, among other things, educating coaches, parents, and players about concussions, supplying players properly reconditioned and fitted helmets, teaching players how to tackle without using those helmets, minimizing the amount of full-contract practice time, creating an environment in which players feel safe in honestly reporting concussion symptoms, ensuring that concussions, when they do occur, are managed properly, and prohibiting players from returning to practice and play until a doctor with concussion expertise decides in the exercise of good clinical judgment that their growing brains have been given all the time they need - and then some - to heal.
Because millions of athletes, from Pop Warner to the NFL, will continue to play the game, I decided that my job, as it has been for the last 15 plus years, isn't to sit in front of a computer all day, questioning the morals, ethics, or motivations of those involved in the never-ending effort to make sports safer. It is instead, as I like to say, to work in the trenches - to lace up my Asics every morning, talk to youth sports coaches on the sidelines, climb into the stands to talk with moms and dads during practice and games, attend their board meetings, and, above all, to work with top experts in their fields to continue to provide every youth sports stakeholder with the latest and most comprehensive and objective information about the risks of playing contact and collision sports such as football (and soccer, and lacrosse, and hockey).
I have chosen to work to make sports safety through education and grass roots activism: to educate every sports stakeholder about the steps that can be and are being taken to reduce the risks of traumatic brain injury, not just from concussion but the cumulative effect of repetitive head trauma; and how those risks can be further minimized through a comprehensive traumatic brain injury risk management program focusing on early concussion identification, immediate removal from play, appropriate treatment, conservative return to play, and retirement from contact sports when the risk of continued play becomes unacceptably high.
Admittedly, in an age in which more and more people tend to gravitate towards opposite ends of the spectrum in their opinions on just about anything - in the case of the great debate about football, either urging parents to find another sport for their child to play or extolling its many benefits while minimizing its risks - it is hard for anyone like I am who occupies the reasonable, pragmatic, pro-safety middle to be heard above the maddening crowd.
The challenge I face - that all those of us who love, not just the game of football, but all sports and are dedicated to making them safer - is having our message heard. For the most part, the national media doesn't seem interested in reporting good news - that there are steps being taken to make football and contact and collision sports such as soccer, lacrosse, and hockey, safer - because it is bad news, scary news, sensational news, that sells, and that some in Concussion, Inc. depend for their very existence on promoting.
From my vantage point, having spent countless hours working the last 15 years with youth and football communities around the country, from talking with football parents, coaches, administrators, athletic trainers, clinicians and academicians, and from becoming educated about the actual facts about the safety of football, I believe that, not only is football a sport worth saving, and that it can be saved, but that those who call for it to simply be abolished, represent an extremely vocal minority.
I simply refuse to be cowed into turning my back on the millions of kids who continue to play the game and their parents, and on the thousands of youth and high school football programs around the country which for the past fifteen years have looked, and continue to look, to MomsTEAM for advice on how to make the game as safe as it can be.
In the end, I don't believe it will be those who scream the loudest, the trolls on social media engaging in the politics of emotion and innuendo, who hide behind dummy Twitter handles, who will prevail. It will be those who discuss the risks and benefits of sports calmly, rationally, and objectively, who work tirelessly to make sports safer, based on science, who will win out.
Brooke de Lench is the Executive Director of MomsTEAM Institute of Youth Sports Safety, Founder and Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports, and Producer and Director of The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer. You can follow Brooke on Twitter @brookedelench