Saturday, January 21, 2017

“Dad, Can I Play Football?”

Appeared on

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

One of the most important rules of parenthood is this: avoid expectations regarding your child’s interests or personality. The world changes for every generation, personal experiences are unique and the variables-made-possible by human genetics are about as hard to get your mind around as a spacecraft landing on a comet. A parent might want a mini-me or a mirror image of their beloved spouse, but a child is an individual, separate and completely distinct from the two humans who created them, despite the shared DNA. So don’t long for the child you wanted, always be thankful for the one - or ones - that you have.

Still, parents like to see, and often do, traces of their personality (the good, the bad and the ugly) in their offspring. For moms and dads with an athletic background, I think the desire for a child to share an interest in sports is particularly intense; and if you happen to be a father with a son, junior’s sudden inclination to play hoops in the backyard, to learn how to throw a baseball or to run through soccer dribbling drills are acutely prideful moments. And when a son asks a father to play organized sports for a local rec league or school, it’s enough to give even the most emotionally hardened father a creeper in the throat and eyes swelled with tears.

Questions like, “Can I play baseball?”, or statements such as, “I really want to play basketball this year” barely leave a son’s mouth before a proud papa responds with an excited “sure.” But in recent years, another once innocuous, pride-swelling sports question has become far more confounding. Quick, unqualified and affirmative responses have been replaced by confusion, unease and worry. Now, fathers are often left tongue-tied and conflicted when a son asks this age-old question: “Dad, can I play football?” 

The Dad Within the Pros & Politicians

The difficulty of that question isn’t confined to average sized, semi-athletic men with similarly built sons. As the evidence of football’s physical and mental consequences has mounted, many of those that played the game at the highest level have expressed concern about their kids following in daddy’s footsteps. Former Pittsburgh Steelers QB Terry Bradshaw said on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” in 2012 that he wouldn’t let his son play. Troy Aikman, former Dallas Cowboys quarterback, told Bryant Gumble during an interview on HBO’s “Real Sports” in 2011 that, if he had a son, he wouldn’t let him play. And on the “Dan Patrick Show”, future Hall of Fame QB Kurt Warner shared that his sons intend to chase the NFL dream and that the thought of his boys playing football scares him.

These are powerful statements from elite football players - one’s you would assume would be among the game’s most ardent supporters. Apparently the dad hat trumps the football player hat – as it should.

But there’s more. Crossing over to the hardwood, LeBron James, father of two boys, recently announced that the recreational itinerary in the James household would not include football games. Earlier this year, the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, President Barack Obama, expressed the same opinion.    

A president, a basketball star and a handful of Hall of Fame football players…aligned against generation-next playing the great American game of football. That is an impressive list of witnesses for the prosecution.

A Danger Impossible To Ignore

Those famous opinions matter of course (how can you dismiss several NFL greats, the best basketball player on the planet and the leader of the free world), but the answer to the question, “would you let your son play football?”, is a little different for the “average dad” (a tight fraternity I’ll refer to as “we” or “us”). Whether it was backyard skirmishes, epic battles at recess or legendary games at birthday parties, most of us have played the game to some extent. Those with decent ability strapped on a helmet for the local high school on Friday nights. A scant few made their way on to a college roster. We may have played against a few guys who suited up for a major college. And our tiny hometowns might even have a player or two that actually made it all the way to the NFL (for me, that guy is John Dorsey, former Green Bay Packers linebacker and current General Manager of the Kansas City Chiefs).

But, unlike those aforementioned NFL quarterbacks, the overwhelming majority of us didn’t play organized football long enough to legally drink a beer after games. We didn’t play into our thirties and didn’t log over a decade on a field with biggest, strongest, fastest and meanest athletes on earth. We also didn’t acquire enough wealth from the game to set up our children financially. Football was just a flash in time, a brief period in our lives. There were no major injuries and it is hard to discern whether our aches and pains are from football or just advancing age. And there’s a strong possibility that if we let our boys play the game, their experience will be similarly brief and without an identifiable consequence.

So what’s all the concern about? Why do we struggle with signing off on our boys playing football? Or am I getting ahead of myself? Was I wrong to assume that the average dad – guys like me…and probably you – wrestle with the thought of our sons playing football?

To answer that last question, I went right to the source: a handful of fellow fathers who have young sons. The dads in my data set all played some football in their day - from neighborhood throw-downs on the weekends to high school ball - and love it deeply to this day. I sat down with each of them for a lengthy chat over tea. We nestled into comfortable couches and flipped on “The View” in the background for inspiration. None of that happened, of course. I just went all caveman and bluntly asked my fellow dads these three direct questions: 1) would you let your son play football?; 2) if so, would you cut him off at some point as the violence increases?; and, 3) would a sustained concussion change your mind?

The answers included one emphatic approval and an equally passionate disapproval of football for junior. In the middle there were a lot of caveats, what ifs, maybes and general consternation. There was concern about shutting a door on a life opportunity, quelling a passion and creating an excessively risk-adverse tempo to life. There was also universal concern for the health of their boys (more on both of those perspectives later). It was a loud acknowledgement of what we now know about the game of football, the power of that knowledge and the precious gift – a man’s son – that a father would knowingly subject to football’s very scary and very real dangers…dangers that are impossible to ignore.

Risk v. Reward

I owe it to the reader and to my fellow dads who were kind enough to share their thoughts for this piece, to offer my opinion. Would I let my son play football?

No. The occasional pick-up game or flag football? Yes. Organized tackle football? No.

Damn it hurts to say that. Sports have been impossibly good to me. I have made countless friends and compiled life-long memories through athletics. The games I played gave me confidence, a competitive drive and an understanding of teamwork. They taught me the importance of commitment, sportsmanship and physical fitness. Frankly, I will never repay my debt to the games I have and always will love. That doesn’t make me special; it makes me like everyone else who has played sports for any length of time at any level – and it is why I would struggle to tell my son he that can’t play football.

My bet is he can get all of what I mentioned above from other sports - none of it is unique to football. But as one dad told me, high school football is special, something you have to experience to understand. That resonated with me. I get it. Life is full of risks. Going to sleep tonight is a risk. Getting in a car or plane tomorrow is risk. Having sex with the attractive young lady down the hall in apartment 2b is a risk. Heck, parenthood - the thing that helped create this dilemma in the first place - is one of the greatest risks two people will ever take. You never want to live shy or be afraid to take a chance, roll the dice or go for something you believe in or have passion for. Thinking long-term is important and considering your physical health is commendable, but tomorrow is not a given and youth is fleeting.

That said, my answer would still be no; but I understand and respect those who would say yes to football.

The Certainty: Uncertainty

It doesn’t take a parent long to come to grips with this ever-frustrating fact: childrearing often lacks a definitive answer. Should I take that new job across the country? What health care plan is best for my family? Who’s the best pediatrician in town? What’s the best school district? Are these behaviors a cause for concern? How do I police Internet usage effectively? Is my child progressing sufficiently? The worries and imperfect solutions are endless.

Go ahead and add, “Should I let my son play football?” to this lengthy list…as if parents needed more uncertainty. My Q&A with fellow fathers revealed this undeniable undertone: regardless of whether a dad permitted his son to play football or not, residual guilt and second-guessing would persist. For those that would prevent their boys from playing, questions would remain as to what experiences, relationships, lessons, memories and opportunities that an emphatic “no” would never allow to happen. One dad who played football in high school even said that had his parents not allowed him to play, he would still harbor some resentment. Conversely, the risk of a son getting hurt, being concussed and experiencing physical and/or mental symptoms from those injuries, would leave an approving dad racked with guilt…for life.

So what is the answer? Well, like just about every major decision faced by parents, it depends. It depends on your belief system, your child and your assessment of the obvious risk and equally identifiable rewards. For me, the answer is “no football.” For you, the best answer might be yes. We are both right; and, to some extent, we are both wrong. That’s why parents get the big bucks, I suppose. When those big bucks come my way, I’ll buy the first round and we’ll talk about the decision we made…and all desperately hope it was the right one for our child.

Author’s Note: Special thanks to my fellow fathers for your opinions on this important topic.

No comments:

Post a Comment