After the string of depressing, disconcerting, alarmingly repetitive and generally just gross events surrounding the NFL in the past few months, it's hard to muster up much enthusiasm about the return of football season. And those events involved adults. This involves kids.
My son turned 4 the other day, and one of his birthday gifts was (another) Miami Dolphins T-shirt. But even though he spent the morning after Miami's rousing victory over the Patriots pretending to catch passes and get tackled (by throwing himself onto the floor, much to the consternation of my downstairs neighbors, I'm sure), he doesn't really know much about the sport (although I think he's already starting to figure out that the Miami Dolphins stink). That will start to change this year, because I am going to watch them with him. (Until he gets bored and starts playing with his trains or screaming about something, or both. Probably both.)
I want him to enjoy watching the game. But only watching it. Because I don't plan to let him play. As the evidence of football's health risks grows, is there any parent left who will?
There are, obviously. I'm not that naive, and I'm not judging them; there's no guarantee that their kids will be adversely effected. Admittedly I have it easier than some parents; the odds that my son will have the right build to ever play football at a serious level are low, and he's young enough that I can start dissuading his impressionable self now, before he gets attached. It would be a lot harder if he were 8 or 10 or 12 and already dreaming of playing a game he loves. But even then, I'd have to put my foot down; I'm just not willing to take the risk.
Even if it's only pee-wee and Pop Warner, starting them young just increases the odds. The kind of trauma that's coming back to haunt these players isn't the kind that results from one hit. It's from the steady accumulation of football collisions, which only grows over a lifetime spent playing the game. But you don't have to spend a lifetime playing football to worry about the damage you may have done to yourself.
From WebMD.com: High-school athletes who have suffered as few as two concussions may already have the signs of "post-concussion syndrome," according to a study published in the journal Neurosurgery in January.
We hear too many stories of football players from our parents' generation who've descended into mental illness and died too young. We hear an increasing number of stories about guys we grew up watching, like Junior Seau, who committed suicide and whose brain was found to have been damaged by concussions, and like Jim McMahon, who has said that he starts forgetting the interviews he's giving almost WHILE HE'S GIVING THEM. We hear these stories and we keep watching the game every Sunday. We keep rooting for our teams. And we keep indoctrinating our kids. Which could cause trouble later, when I tell him he can't play.
The last thing I want to do is prevent my kid from doing something he loves. Well, no; the last thing I want to do is take my kid to get a CAT Scan. Because while I want him to be happy, I'd rather he be healthy. And the way the game is played now, despite the increasing knowledge and subsequent precautions and improved equipment and new ways of coaching, I'm not convinced it can keep him that way. So I'm not willing to let my son endanger himself by playing. And speaking with other parents, I know I'm not alone.
Which makes me wonder: if a generation of kids grows up protected from football, can we expect the NFL's dominance of the sporting landscape to continue? Can we be sure that the sport will even exist in 30 years? I'm starting to think that it won't be long -- despite the NFL Commissioner's transparent attempts to enforce rules meant to promote safety (Bountygate; neutering kickoffs; gradually making the QB's life so easy that Marino would triple his numbers if he played today, dammit!) -- before the NFL will be irrevocably changed, so much so that the game may become unrecognizable.
That would be sad (especially if it happens before Ryan Tannehill brings the Fins another championship). But make no mistake: it won't be anywhere near as sad as what's happened to Junior Seau and countless others who've sacrificed their well-being in ways both big and small to play a sport whose terrible consequences are mounting every year.
Shortly after Junior Seau's suicide, I heard Chuck Klosterman say he thinks we need to see an articulate, beloved player deteriorate in front of our eyes (the hypothetical example he used was Super Bowl MVP and multiple-concussion-sufferer-turned-analyst Troy Aikman) before the public's appetite for the game will finally be overwhelmed by the carnage being left in its wake. Maybe he's right, but even if he is, even if the game stops being popular, people will still play. (People still box, and we have no illusions about that.) Just not my son. I've already seen enough to know that the closest he'll get to football is the stands.
And yes, I'm going to continue to let him watch football with me. But while he does, I'll be forever reminding him that we're watching trained professionals: don't try this at home.
Read more from Mike Julianelle on Dad and Buried.