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Hero Worship: Football’s Double-edged Sword

On and off the field, murder, suicide, rape, concussion: Should your child play?

Whether or not you are a football fanatic, what has been happening on and off the field has some effect on you. Maybe you love Sunday and Monday night football, following your local high school or Pop Warner games. Or, maybe your children are enthralled with the game. However you feel, it is hard to avoid football mania.

Recently the focus has shifted from wins and losses to treatment of contact injuries among children and professionals alike. The conversation raises many questions: Should you allow your children to play football, and if so, starting at what age? Can concussions be prevented or limited by better equipment and rule changes? Do you want the people you love exposed the potential hazards? How do you explain high school and professional players’ abhorrent behavior to your young athlete?

Hero Worship

In our culture, sports stars are treated as heroes and have privileges heaped on them; their anti-social behavior is often overlooked. The great forward passer gets a scholarship while an outstanding science student is forced to take out student loans. Sometimes young heroes commit terrible acts. In August, two 16-year-old Steubenville, Ohio football players were charged with rape and so far are under house arrest awaiting trial next month.

The boys performed sexually motivated acts on a young lady too drunk to resist or even be aware of what was happening. Equally unprincipled were teammates who didn’t stop them, but instead photographed and filmed the demeaning behavior only to march back on the football field unchallenged by their coaches in September as if nothing had happened. The game goes on. (For details of this incident, see: Rape Case Unfolds on Web and Splits City)

Where does this behavior stem from? Is it the violent nature of the game itself or are young players mimicking the despicable behavior of their heroes—the professional gladiators we read about daily: players shooting themselves in the leg in bars or worse. A few weeks ago, a player shot his girlfriend and then himself. Reading about the murder-suicide, my thoughts immediately went to head injury. Was Jovan Belcher’s actions related to a previous concussion in some way? I know there may be other explanations (drugs, alcohol, the pressure to perform), but does football not lend itself to abhorrent behavior? What impact do these acts have on America’s youth, especially the ones who play or want to play football, who admire well-known players?

Should Your Child Play Football?

Fans are forgiving…and many parents actively encourage and want to raise a football star or scholarship baby. The sport, like others, has pluses. It teaches camaraderie, team spirit, and discipline. It promotes fitness that in turn aids academic performance. A new study in theJournal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness adds to the mounting evidence that children, in this study middle school students, who “are more physically fit make better grades and outperform their classmates on standardized tests,” says Dawn Coe, lead researcher and assistant professor in the University of Tennessee Department of Kinesiology, Recreation, and Sport Studies.

Are these good trade-offs for possible pain, dementia, or a lasting disability? Aren’t there other sports from which young children gain the upside of football without its downside?

Many thoughtful medical professionals have studied and reacted to this dilemma. Among them, Dr. Robert Cantu, a clinical professor in the department of neurosurgery and a co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at the Boston University School of Medicine, takes a firm position:Kids under age 14 should not play tackle football. In “Preventing Sports Concussions Among Children,” an article he wrote for The New York Times, he notes, “Yet if it were my call, those millions [roughly 3 million] would be playing touch football instead. Many would be learning the fundamentals of tackling and other football skills. But they would not be playing tackle football until they turned 14.”

In that article and in his book, Concussions and Our Kids: America's Leading Expert on How to Protect Young Athletes and Keep Sports Safe, Cantu explains that young children’s brains are developing, hence, vulnerable. He says, “More worrisome is what we don’t know. How will the hits absorbed by a 9-year-old today be felt at 30, or 50?”

Dr. Cantu and I are in complete agreementas I explained in my discussion of the disastrous suburban Boston youth football game: Why I Brainwashed My Son: The NFL and NCAA, as leaders in the sport, must find ways to make football safer. It is up to parents, educators, and doctors to see if there is any place for football in very young lives.

Also of interest:


Cantu, Robert C. "Preventing Sports Concussions Among Children." The New York Times. 07 Oct. 2012.

Cantu, Robert C., and Hyman, Mark. Concussions and Our Kids: America's Leading Expert on How to Protect Young Athletes and Keep Sports Safe. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

Coe, DP, Pivarnik, JM, Womack, CJ, Reeves, MJ, and Malina, RM. "Health-related Fitness and Academic Achievement in Middle School Students." Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness. 52.6 (2012): 654-60. Minerva Medica.

Gregory, Sean. "How the Kansas City Chiefs, and the NFL, Are Coping with Tragedy." Time. Time Inc. 2 Dec. 2012.

For more on the Steubenville case: Rape Case Unfolds on Web and Splits City and Steubenville Rape Case Splits Town Between Big Red and Guy Fawkes

Copyright 2013 by Susan Newman

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