Should I Let My Kid Play Football?

Balancing the risks and rewards of the gridiron

Posted Feb 10, 2016

 Jim Larrison, CCL.
Source: Jim Larrison, CCL.

In Super Bowl 50, Panthers WR Corey Brown and Broncos LB Shaquil Barrett were removed from the game because they suffered concussions. Many others likely suffered subconcussive impacts to their heads during the course of the big game. There is continuing controversy about how the NFL has and is handling these issues. In a press conference leading up to the game, Commissioner Roger Goodell said that “If I had a son I’d love to have him play the game of football because of the values you get. There’s risk in life. There’s risk to sitting on the couch.”

Of widespread concern to many is the potential for long-term brain injuries for the millions of American children who play football. More high school athletes play football than any other sport. This trend may not last, however. Pop Warner, the largest youth football organization in the United States, is seeing a steady decline in the numbers of its participants due to fears about head injuries.

This leads to an important ethical question for parents: Should I let my kid play football?

Many public figures have stated that the wouldn’t allow their children to play the game, such as Bob Costas, LeBron James, Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw, Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, and Barack Obama. Others, after taking the risks into account, allow their kids to play the game (see this article by my friend Anna McDonald). There are good arguments on both sides of this issue. Here, I’ll discuss a recent argument for the claim that parents shouldn’t let their kids play football [1].

Football arguably carries more risk of a concussion than any other sport. There is research showing that up to 20% of high school players suffer a concussion each year. Of course, “up to” is an important qualifier. More research is needed. More troubling, however, is the evidence about the long-term danger of multiple subconcussive blows to the head. These can lead to a degenerative brain disease—chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)—with symptoms that include loss of memory, depression, aggression, and in the long run, dementia. Steps have been taken to reduce the risk of brain injury, and while they may be effective at reducing the risk of concussions, nothing shows that they reduce the risk of CTE.

With the above in mind, what are the implications for the duties of parents? It is clear that parents have an obligation not to allow their kids to participate in activities that threaten their ability to acquire the skills needed for being an autonomous, flourishing adult. Since concussions and CTE are serious threats to the present and future well-being of children, it follows that parents have an obligation to prohibit their kids from playing football. The obligation is arguably a prima facie obligation, however, which means that it may be overridden by other factors that balance out the risk of harm. But those other factors seem to be available in other sports that involve less risk.

I played tackle football from 3rd through 9th grade. I published a book about football and its connections to philosophy. And I watched Super Bowl 50. My wife and I have three daughters, and none had any interest in playing football. If I had a son (or daughter) who wanted to play football, would I let him (or her)? I honestly am not sure, but at the moment I would lean towards not allowing it, though I respect those who make a different choice after thinking through the issues.

The goods of football, such as learning teamwork, developing character, cultivating physical fitness, and having fun, are available in other sports that don’t also carry such a high risk of long-term brain injury. I’m not advocating that we let our kids sit on the couch instead of playing football. But parents who are facing this choice should at least consider the other ways in which their kids might get the benefits available via football, without incurring the risk of serious harm.


1. Patrick Findler, “Should Kids Play (American) Football?,” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport 42, no. 3 (September 2, 2015): 443–62, doi:10.1080/00948705.2015.1079132.

Photo: CCL.