Concussions and Football

ARLINGTON, Texas – I’m standing on the turf of Cowboys Stadium, surrounded by the unrelenting quirkiness of Super Bowl Media Day – where costumed superheroes ask inane questions and matadors from Mexican TV stations do ridiculous dances – but I have a serious issue on my mind.

A topic that will stir intense debate and will force the NFL players to question their own and their kids’ morality and mortality.

The question is simple: knowing what we now know about concussions and assuming the data that scientists study will continue to link head injuries to early onset dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, would you allow your son–real or hypothetical–to play football?

Some players, I figured, would say yes. Some players would debate the question in their answer. Some might even say, “No way,” and cite the reason that they play the game so their kids will have all the money they’ll ever need.

I was wrong.

Said Green Bay Packers linebacker Frank Zombo: “I don’t regret anything I’ve done. Playing football has been an amazing opportunity for me. I would love for my kid to participate in this sport. It’s something I would definitely encourage.”

Said Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Limas Sweed: “If my son wants to play football, then I’ll let him play.”

Said standout running back Rashard Mendenhall: “You know what you get into when you sign up for the game. It’s a risk involved with any and everything you do. A lot of the concussion stuff has been made bigger than it really is. It’s a risk; you know what’s involved.”

Every person I asked said he had no problem allowing his son to play what we know is a devastating and potentially deadly game.

I, however, will not allow my son to play football. I cover the NFL for a living, and I’ve seen firsthand the immediate aftereffects of how a concussion can wreck your mind (at least temporarily). But (and I’m not proud of this) I also could see myself wavering.

My wife will not allow my son to play football, and she would not ever give in. So, that settles it. Our son will not play football. No matter what he says, no matter how he pleads, no matter how big the bribe, he won’t step foot on that football field.

Slowly, people are beginning to take that same stance.

On a recent episode of HBO’s Real Sports, former Dallas Cowboys star quarterback Troy Aikman–the proud owner of eight concussions–questioned whether he’d allow his son to play.

“I think that we’re at a real crossroads, as it relates to the grassroots of our sport, because if I had a 10-year-old boy, I don’t know that I’d be real inclined to encourage him to go play football, in light of what we are learning from head injuries,” Aikman told host Bryant Gumbel. “And so what is the sport going to look like 20 years from now?”

That’s a good question. One suggestion is for players to wear helmets with no facemasks–or even go back to leather headwear–because that would force players not to head-hunt and focus more on shoulder tackling. That would surely cut down the concussions.

The NFL this year also instituted a series of fines and possible suspensions for head-to-head hits, but the rules are confusing and the league, at times, acts hypocritically when it comes to player safety and making a profit.

The big issue, though, is that the ones who play the game aren’t willing to change. There are special helmets they can wear, mouthpieces they can utilize and concussion risks they can minimize. But in they say, “The helmets are uncomfortable and unfamiliar, the mouthpieces makes it harder for us to breathe and minimizing risks would alter the game of football.”

I can understand it when they apply that attitude to their well-being, but when it’s their son’s health, I can’t fathom why they won’t even think about saying no to the sport.

“I understand the consequences,” Steelers running back Mewelde Moore said.

Yes, I answered, but your son might not. How do you balance that line?

“It’s one of those things where you just know,” he said. “It’s my household, and I make the rules. I can’t tell my son not to play football if I play football. Football has been too good for me.”

Yes, but …

“It’s free will,” Sweed said a little bit earlier. “But I also believe in destiny. If it’s meant for you to have a concussion or to break your spine, then that’s what’s supposed to happen.”

The players don’t want to fight this battle. Their children–who don’t know any better–are the ones who could suffer the consequences. Very few will make it to the NFL and earn gobs of money. They’re likelier to do long-term damage to their health.

Is the former worth the latter’s risk? It doesn’t have to be free will, and it doesn’t have to be destiny. As a parent, you can say no. You make the rules.

When your child comes to you asking to sign him up for pee-wee football, what will you say? More importantly, can you live with your answer?

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