Why Would Anyone Let Their Kid Play Football or Anything Else?
Football is the New Smoking
When I was growing up in the 1950's, my parents smoked a great deal. My father even smoked in the car. This was before cigarette packs had draconian warnings on the side, which today pretty much say "smoke and you die."
Google "cigarette warning labels" if you want to see some of the really scary ones from Europe.
Back then, it was obvious to me and many others that smoking was unhealthy.
At the time, many smokers were in denial as some are today, but the jury has certainly spoken about the risks you take if you smoke or breath someone else's smoke.
When I reached high school in the 1960's, football was the glamor sport, as it still is in many schools. Fortunately for myself, I didn't have the physical attributes to participate at the varsity level. As a result, I have spent my life concussion-free and even though I'm pushing 70, my brain and body work just fine. Up until recently, I hadn't given much thought about how football might be bad for the brain. Within the last few years, however, we have seen many news stories suggesting a connection between playing football and subsequent trips to the dementia spectrum.
It doesn't seem possible that most of our population failed to connect the act of repeated collisions with brain damage. Once you realize that boxing for a living had something to do with Muhammad Ali's deteriorated mental condition, it's not a big stretch to believe that football could have a similar effect. We may have reached a tipping point as 57 percent of parents, according to a recent ESPN survey, say that the recent news makes them concerned about letting their kids play youth football. It seems, therefore, that it is just a matter of time before schools either fail to field a team or cancel football to avoid liability issues.
Violence as a Spectator Sport
You might wonder how it is that we ever thought that a sport where the central idea was to run as fast as you can and collide with other people was a good idea. It's no secret that people in general love to watch violence.
Where would the gladiators have been without this essential human emotion?
Watching people you don't know beat the crap out of each other might be fun for some, but how about when it's your own flesh and blood? While violent movies and computer games are very popular, most of our population limits violence view to the virtual variety.
So let's assume that it won't be long before almost all parents take a pass on letting their kids play football as we know it. The question then becomes, what should parents let their kids do? Flashing back to my youth again, I recall that after school or on non-school days, my mother usually told me to go out and play and to be home in time for dinner.
My geographical limits were those imposed by my bicycle skills, and it wasn't unusual for me to roam the neighborhood armed with a BB gun and/or a bow with metal-tipped arrows. I played in a nearby swamp and garbage dump. This was before wetlands and landfills were invented. In modern terms I was a free-range child. I played pick-up baseball, basketball, and touch football along with other classic childhood games and games we made up. From people I have talked to in my generation, my experience was fairly common.
Today if a parent lets their kids roam the neighborhood unsupervised they run the risk of being turned in for neglect and some have been. Parents with means enroll their kids in various sporting activities, which almost always require driving the kids to the location of the activity and hanging out on the sidelines. As Amanda Ripely points out in her book "The Smartest Kids in the World," the kids would be farther ahead academically if the parents spent this time reading with the kids and discussing what they read.
As for safety, kids are at greater risk of injury due to an automobile accident than if they were simply roaming the neighborhood unsupervised.
Football Isn't the Only Risk
Although football is probably the number one culprit, a quick look at available data shows that concussions and other injuries aren't limited to football. Just about any sport that schools run offers opportunities for life-changing injuries, but some are certainly safer than others. Parents should certainly beware of contact sports such as basketball, soccer, and lacrosse.
Sports with projectiles like baseball, softball, and lacrosse offer additional opportunities for injury. Once you get past concussions, the next most popular injuries with serious consequences seems to be tears or breaks of the ligaments surrounding the knee.
Then there are the sports where overuse comes into play. Too much running or throwing can cause injuries to arms and legs. While running seems like a good thing to do, too much can be a problem.
Perhaps the biggest risk for girls is cheerleading. When I was in high school, the cheerleaders barely got off the floor, and no one I know remembers a cheerleader injury from my era.
Today, some cheerleading teams don't even cheer as they are focused to prepare for cheerleading competitions. If you haven't seen one of these affairs, you should give it a try. They feature girls standing on each other, throwing each other about, manic tumbling, and all sorts of opportunities for serious injuries. I have yet to attend a competition that didn't feature at least one girl, usually more, being taken out in a wheel chair or on a stretcher.
If your kid plays a sport that features an EMT van on the sideline you should probably think again.
Schools seldom offer dance or martial arts, but they are usually available in most communities. Ironically martial arts programs are very low in injury frequency as is dance, at least for starters. More advanced ballet can feature lifts and dancing on one's toes for which the toe is poorly designed. If you ever get a look at an adult ballerina's feet, you will know what I mean.
Paying for Other Kids' Play
Another problem with school sports is that every high school has one of each kind of team they can support, no matter the school's size. My high school was so big that a very small percentage of the students could play anything. In spite of the fact that I couldn't make a team, my parents paid taxes that supported all the teams. This is why other countries run sports through clubs that are not associated with schools. In these systems the people who play are the people who pay. At the other end of the spectrum are small schools where just about every able bodied student has to play just to field a team, and almost every student plays three sports.
As for academics, school sports programs are a clear cause of poorer performance than might otherwise be the case. Students who are serious about sports certainly have less time for any kind of serious study.
At the college level we have seen situations where students take courses that don't exist and still get passing grades, and where team managers write the papers. Even when so-called student athletes take a course, they are usually off the easy course, easy professor list that you can find in any frat house or athletic department.
The fact that schools run extensive athletic programs also impacts hiring practices. In many cases when principals are hiring, the person who can teach and coach will get the nod over one that can only teach regardless of teaching skill. This has to have the effect of reducing the overall quality of the teaching staff to some extent. For many coaches, their real passion is the sport they coach rather than the classes they teach.
What Should a Caring Parent Do?
With many schools cutting back on recess to focus on test prep, parents should pay attention to keeping their kids active. Exercising with your kids seems like the best idea. This allows parents and children to stay fit together and sets a great example for children.
As for school programs, cross country is probably one of the safest and best in terms of fitness as long as you don't run too many miles. Unlike sports like basketball where teams usually consist of about 12 players and only five play at a time, there is no reason for the cross country coach to cut anyone no matter how slow he or she is. The same should be true for the track team, which in some schools offers winter and spring programs.
Other sports that seem safer and shouldn't limit participation are swimming, golf, tennis, and bowling. I played on the golf team in high school. While I wasn't good enough to play in any competitions, I was able to play for free every day after school in the spring.
While most school employees look down on home schooling, kids that are home schooled can have a much more robust and healthy exercise program. I am familiar with some where the kids take breaks with other kids mid morning and mid afternoon for exercise activities. Such activities can serve to fill the socialization gap caused by not going to school. These kids can also stand and walk about any time and don't need a hall pass to go to the bathroom.
Schools and individual teachers can address this. I have seen elementary teachers who get their kids out of their seats on a regular basis for calisthenics or at least a walk around the halls. Some secondary schools build in longer gaps between two periods in the morning and afternoon so that students can walk or run.
Think Long Term
Thanks to my limited skills, I not only missed playing football, I also missed out on life-altering injuries. I have a number of friends my age who made the team who are now less fit and less able to engage in exercise due to bad backs and artificial joints. I'm sure that it won't be too long before one or more hits the dementia spectrum. It should be clear to parents that kids need to move on a regular basis, but if that movement involves running into other people, it's not a good idea. So when it's time to sign your kid up for youth football, don't do it. Your child might not like it if his friends are playing so be ready for a battle.
Dr. Doug Green is a former teacher of chemistry, physics, and computer science. He has held administrative positions of K-12 science chair, district director of computer services, director of instruction, and elementary principal. He teaches leadership courses for teachers working on administrative certification, and has authored hundreds of articles in computer magazines and educational journals. He retired in 2006 to care for his wife who had Lou Gehrig's disease. After her death in March of 2009, he started his blog at http://DrDougGreen.Com to provide free resources and book summaries for busy educators and parents. You can follow him on Twitter @DrDougGreen.