Every parent should think long and hard about whether to allow his or her child to play football. It is not an easy question to answer. The risks of suffering concussions are patently clear, especially for younger athletes. The benefits of participating in sports are also clear. What is a parent to do?
We have some data on what parents have done in light of the widespread news about the medical afflictions suffered by retired National Football League players and their debilitating injuries. For many parents - perhaps one out of three in recent polls - the risk of playing football is way too high for their children. Participation in Pop Warner football -- from "tiny-mites" ages 5-7 to "midget" football ages 12-14 -- has decreased by at least ten percent in recent years. Some kids who play tackle football do suffer head injuries - certainly not all those who play, but enough to make the risks evident. Concussive injuries are cumulative, and so starting early may mean that, by high school or college, football players will be grievously injured by any further hits to the head. Even the best helmets can only protect a player's skull, not his brain. The best equipment cannot prevent concussive injuries.
However, those who are quick to condemn tackle football for youngsters tend to ignore the positive aspects of organized sports conducted by trained adults and coaches within strict guidelines that limit potential injuries. Simply put, football is fun to play. If youngsters were not out on the football field in pads and helmets, they would likely be engaged in other inherently dangerous physical activities. All sports, like life itself, involve risks. Unless we intend to keep our children by our sides, safe from the potential of injury, growing up entails dangers to life and limb.
Those who pursue football through high school, college and the pros know the dangers they assume. For some, chronic traumatic encephalopathy and even amyotrophic lateral sclerosis have become the ultimate payoff from years spent on a football field at the professional level. These men played a brutal collision sport, and they started long before concerted efforts were made to reduce and treat the concussive effects. Nevertheless, football will never be totally safe. Intentional violence will exact a personal price on those who participate.
Although the plight of severely injured retired players is generally well known, they do not serve as cautionary role models. No one sees these men in their debilitated condition. As a direct result of the physical and mental injuries they have suffered, they remain out of sight. While the heroes of the National Football League are on display each week in the fall and are glamorized by the popular media, youngsters and their parents do not see what some of them will become in the years to come.
For children below the age of fourteen, many would conclude that the risks of tackle football outweigh the benefits of participation. Their bodies have not yet matured, and they certainly do not have the personal ability to perform a cost-benefit analysis on participation. It is left to their parents to make the choice, but is it clear that parents should always respond negatively?
As a general matter, parents encourage their children to participate in sports and other age-appropriate activities. Sports can be wonderful experiences for youngsters. Regular physical exercise is a healthy adjunct to school work. Learning teamwork and striving for excellence are important lessons. Kids who play organized sports also learn that there are times when you win and other times when you lose. Studies have shown that participation in sports as a youngster fosters academic achievement, increases self-esteem, diminishes behavioral problems, and heightens social development. None of these benefits comes without some costs, but the benefits should not be ignored.
Life is filled with risks. It is the nature of the social enterprise. Football for youngsters may present many more risks than alternative activities, but when conducted in a manner that minimizes unnecessary risks, it should be consider a viable choice. Otherwise, we risk raising a generation weaned only on computer games and the internet.