I’m a big believer that playing sports can teach you a lot about life. I played football for a long time. I started in seventh grade and played through all four years of college. I was pretty good in high school (hence playing in college). In college I saw the field, but not nearly as much as I wanted. One fortunate/blessing thing is that, for the most part, I was on successful teams. We won. We expected to win. Losing was not acceptable. (Side note: Dick’s Sporting Goods has a great new set of ads that capture some of that high school football excitement HERE’S the video)
I’ve taken a drive to succeed, discipline to work hard and a team concept with me through the rest of my life. I was fortunate enough to have coaches (especially in high school) that really understood the big picture and how these lessons can apply to life. When I’m up with a sick baby at three in the morning, I “man up” and do what needs to be done (no offense, ladies). When I come up against a firm ship officer, I can stand my ground. I’ve been tested. I’ve had people try to overcome me and I’ve fought back.
I think that drive for excellence has probably provided me with a lot of good things over the years – some I’m aware of and some I’m not.
But there are more and more problems emerging with the game of football. Mostly related to concussions, but also to longer term brain injuries sustained from just daily contact. These effects seem to be additive for years spent in the game. Your average football player just plays in Junior High and High school. That’s ~6 years of this contact at much lower impact than college (and I’m assuming NFL). Add in college (like I did) and that’s a solid decade of repetitive minor head trauma. It makes me wonder what’s going on in that thick boned bubble of my skull. I had one very significant concussion (I actually staggered all the way to the wrong sideline – kind of a funny story to tell). But I also “got my bell rung” several more times.
There was a terrific “Frontline” episode about this on PBS. It was actually even set where I played growing up. My old high school is on the show (Ozark High School – home of the Hillbillies). It does a good job capturing that culture, but also has a good overview of the head trauma issues. (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/football-high/)
When I’ve tried to raise this issue for discussion by posting some articles on social media and tagging my friends that were either old teammates and/or now coaches I haven’t gotten any response. None. I’m worried that there is a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil attitude about this issue from those inside the game. I understand why they don’t want to talk about it. They might be like me. They might be worried what damage they might have incurred. Or worse, what damage they are helping others incur.
I often get asked the question, “Will you let your boys play football?” The honest answer is that I’m not sure. There is clear data that early concussions (before puberty) can have more severe effects because the brain is still myelinating (adding insulation to the nerves). Effects of concussions before puberty can last much longer and have a wider variety of symptoms. I know that I’m not going to let my boys play until at least middle school/junior high for this reason. Football is not like baseball, in that if you miss little league, you can never catch up. Beyond that, I’m still working it out. Thankfully, I have some time to decide.
So then I’m conflicted: there are these clear dangers that cause me to think about restricting my children, but I still LOVE the game of football. And I love to watch it. The strategy, the intricacies of designing an offense or a defense. The character that gets revealed from competition and challenge are all things I love. But am I exploiting those that are playing? You could argue that NFL players are well compensated and not exploited. But what about college games and players? What about going to the local high school game? Am I supporting students in my community or perpetuating a dangerous element in our society? For the most part, I squash my reservations and just enjoy watching a game. Does that make me a bad person? I hope not. But I know that all my years spent playing football made me a better one.