NFL Players Weigh In on Whether They'll Let Their Children Play Football
As more research begins to surface regarding the link between football and long-term brain damage, the question of whether children should be allowed to play tackle football has become significantly more prevalent. The question even reached President Barack Obama, who told the New Republic in 2013, "I'm a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son, I'd have to think long and hard before I let him play football."
As it turns out, a number of former National Football League players share that same viewpoint.
ESPN.com's Jim Trotter spoke to a number of NFL players during the annual NFL Players Association meeting last month regarding how they feel about their own children playing football.
"If my son wants to play, it will be his decision," Tennessee Titans linebacker Wesley Woodyard told Trotter in reference to his 2-year-old son, Greyson. "But I'm definitely going to make sure he doesn't play until he's, maybe, 12 years old. I started at 6, and I'm definitely not going to allow him to play at that age. Throughout the years, you just continue to build up and pound your body, and bad stuff ends up happening from that."
Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson, who has a 6-year-old son and a 14-month-old son, is fine with his children playing football only once they reach middle school. Prior to middle school, he is an advocate for all children playing flag football rather than tackle football to learn the fundamentals of the game.
"People talk about poor tackling being an issue in contact football," Nelson said. "Everyone wants to fix the tackling. Well, tackling in contact football involves hitting each other and hitting your head on the ground, which means more trauma to the brain. But in flag football, obviously you don't have that. But you teach kids to break down, keep your head up, be on balance."
Defensive lineman Aaron Kampman, who played 10 seasons in the NFL with the Packers and the Jacksonville Jaguars, is now a high school football coach near Iowa City, Iowa. In his spare time, he runs a local flag football league.
"We basically wanted to give parents an opportunity to say, 'Hey, if you don't feel comfortable with your son playing tackle football, we have an option for you,'" he told Trotter. "Personally, I think it has a lot of merit. A lot of kids' necks at 10, 11, even 12, may not be in a place to fully ...It's a violent game," he said. "It's very important in football to make sure we are teaching the proper technical aspects of the game."
It's one thing to hear brain researchers and doctors discuss a potential age restriction for tackle football; it's another thing entirely when it comes from current and former NFL players. It's a sign that the messaging about brain-related risks of playing the game is coming through loud and clear.
Back in 2012, in his book Concussions and Our Kids, Dr. Robert Cantu lobbied for children under the age of 14 to be prohibited from playing tackle football, body-checking in ice hockey, or heading soccer balls. In 2013, a New York state lawmaker proposed a bill that would have banned any child below the age of 11 from playing tackle football, although the legislation never made it past the committee stage. Just last year, Dr. Bennet Omalu, the subject of the movie "Concussion," wrote an editorial in the New York Times calling for parents to prohibit their children under the age of 18 from participating in high-impact contact sports such as football, ice hockey, mixed martial arts, and boxing.
As Cantu explained to me in 2012, children are physiologically different before reaching full skeletal maturation— they're "bobble-head dolls with big heads and weak necks," as he put it. In recognition of that reality, some states and state high school associations have begun to implement a restriction on the amount of contact allowed during football practices in a given week.
Now that it's widely understood that repetitive head trauma can have negative long-term consequences—even the NFL admits as much—the game will continue to evolve to reduce the number of head impacts. For youths, that very well could mean limitations on when they're allowed to begin playing tackle football. If current and former NFL players are supportive of that—which, by the sound of Trotter's piece, a number of them are—policymakers will have an easier time selling such proposals to colleagues down the line.
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