It’s that time of year again — the start of football season.
Training camps have ended, weight has been gained at fantasy football draft parties, and NFL teams and players are making final preparations to begin the season.
This also coincides with the start of the school year and the beginning of the youth football season. Many people I know, including my friends who have young children, are in their very first years of the sport. They come to me as a former professional for advice, wisdom, any motivational tool I can provide their child on having success in both football and school.
And now I find myself in a hard place in these conversations.
I’ve frequently been asked whether or not I’d consider letting my own son play football. My wife makes it clear to me that my son will likely have an interest in football; The fact that his father played seven seasons in the NFL won’t be hidden.
On the surface, I would love for my son to enjoy the game I love. But I can answer the question by assessing my current physical state from head to toe, inside and out. As I trace my body, there’s no shortage of chaos directly resulting from football. But still, these things aren’t enough to deny him our country’s greatest game.
However, living with headaches that are eerily similar to my last concussion is a great reminder and gives me more than enough reason to say, “No, son. I cannot knowingly allow you to destroy your brain.” This decision hurts my heart, but it is the right one until we can establish proper protections for football players’ heads.
The youth are our greatest treasure. I realize this fact more than ever as a father. As parents we build in protections for most every aspect of our children’s lives. We do the same as we equip them to hit the sports fields. These insurance policies we develop do nothing to protect the most vulnerable asset in sports: athletes’ brains.
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We’ve long understood the physical toll athletics can compound on the body. Bumps and bruises are a daily occurrence, and the dangers of traumatic orthopedic injuries are obvious. Now we have reason to believe that long-term damage to the brain is paired directly with participation in multiple sports.
I was encouraged to see USA Football integrate programs like Heads Up Football, looking to advance player safety in the game of football. Teaching our young athletes proper techniques in a manner that could reduce the potential for injury is critical. Football players experience a high number of injuries, and some are believed to be avoidable through proper teaching and application.
I was stunned to find that the program wasn’t achieving these goals. The New York Times reported that youth leagues using Heads Up Football failed to reduce the rate of concussions, and also failed to positively impact the rate of other injuries.
Previously statements on the increased safety of the sport touting success of the program by both the NFL and USA Football were to be corrected along with the misleading statistics. It seems that the only reduction in injury came from a reduction of physical contact during practice. It is irresponsible to give false confidence to parents when the program isn’t better protecting young athletes’ brains.
I have a great deal of respect for Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians. He is doing an incredible job with the Cardinals since taking the helm, and he spoke about the issues surrounding youth football earlier this year.
“This is our sport, it’s being attacked. We have to stop it at the grass roots,” Arians said. “It’s the best game that’s ever been invented. And we have to make sure that moms get the message, because that’s who’s afraid of our game right now. It’s not dads, it’s moms.”
I have to wholeheartedly disagree with Coach Arians’ sentiments. Mother knows best! Coach has it wrong; mothers are concerned for a reason. They do not want their children suffering, bringing ruin to their lives because of thousands of blasts to their noggins. As a father I do not want my outcomes for my children.
It’s unfortunate, but there has likely been a player Arians has coached at some point in his career who will suffer from the onset of brain disease. It’s a fact of the sport, not an opinion. This is a widespread epidemic plaguing the sport. It fascinates me that in a league predicated on intelligence, supreme toughness and swagger that fear and denial in health care are perpetuated.
“If I had a son, I’d love to have him play the game of football. There’s risks in life. There’s risk in sitting on the couch.” Those words, spoken by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell earlier this year, became a knife in my back — a major blemish to my otherwise-awesome experience of attending my first Super Bowl.
The total lack of compassion for the men lining up to compete in our sport’s pinnacle game was a dart in the face. That risk is why fans show up each Sunday — and pay subscriptions to NFL Sunday Ticket every season. While I was playing for the Jacksonville Jaguars, I was stopped by a fan at a Daily’s convenience store one day while grabbing coffee. This man had saved for five years working a construction job just to afford his season tickets. At that moment, I knew how important this game was to fans — not just to those who play it but for the fabric of our society.
The game of football has a lasting impact on many lives.
If you’re a fan and happen to make it to church during Week 1 of the NFL season, please pray for the athletes you’ll be watching. Pray for the youth league running back who took a few big hits and now has trouble concentrating in school. His parents may blame football as the reason, and they may be right.
Pray for the high school senior who has high hopes of playing football at the next level, but will deal with lifelong handicaps from football injuries instead. Pray for the NFL athlete who feeds his family while sacrificing his brain for the team. Pray for the medical caretakers of our athletes, that they’ll be responsible and provide the most amazing care they’re capable of. Pray for the decision-makers, that they might see past the cloud of marijuana stigma and input sensible policies.
I’ll be on my knees praying — and that’s saying something, because they hurt after being bent for too long. I’m praying I won’t need them replaced at some point, but at least that’s an option, unlike replacing brain cells.