It not need be said that football is a voilent sport. At its base, its fans revel in 300-plus pound men mashing into each other play after play. As Nebraska Cornhusker fans we hope that our big men squash the other team's big men, bringing back the glory days of Husker football when Tom Osborne's "pipeline" destroyed opponents by wearing them down and crushing them with a relentless rushing attack, sometimes with a result that was so lopsided it could be considered near slaughter.
That we're rooting for violence tends to be forgotten until a moment at which the violence stands by itself, refusing to be ignored. Such it was this week with the shock of Junior Seau's suicide. That such an icon could take his own life has given pause to football fans as they contemplate whether his death was a direct cause of playing their favorite sport.
It's left a particular mark on those who are parents who are now wondering about the sport itself, spending a lot more time pondering what may have previously been an easily answered question:
Will you let your son play football?
As a father to two sons, (19 and 13), I've already answered the question for one of them so I have some insight as to how I handled the situation.
Around seventh grade, my oldest son asked if he could go out for football. Real football. American football. Helmets pads, everything. I was surprised. I had not pushed him toward football, but nor had I discouraged it. The only sport I had tried to push on him early was baseball and he would have nothing to do with it. It involved too much standing around waiting for something to happen. It was boring.
Instead, he got involved in soccer. It was constant movement. As any soccer parent knows, the young years aren't so much soccer as they are "scrum ball"; a bunch of kids gathered around the ball trying to advance it towards the other team's goal. It gets more advanced as the kids age, but as he matured I saw no signs that he was overly aggressive, and more importantly, that he was interested in being physical.
That's why his request to play football was such a surprise.
We let him do it. There wasn't even much thought given to saying no. After he was born his mother and I decided that sports was something we wanted our children involved in. It's not just the consistent activity - it's being part of a team, learning how to win and lose (with grace, hopefully), and most importantly, learning how to be competitive. We both played sports through high school (in my case, not that well, but I still played) and we both enjoyed the experience.
Honestly, I thought he'd quit after his first few practices. He did not. He continued to play, mostly playing on the line, either tackle or tight end, and trying linebacker and safety on defense. In one game I saw him get run over by a kid twice his size he was trying to tackle. The kid sent him rolling, cartwheel-style, head over heels. It didn't bother him a bit as he got up and chased after the kid before the play ended.
He got to play a lot, his team went on to win their league's championship and he experienced no serious injuries. It doesn't get much more successful than that.
He enjoyed it enough that he went out again in eighth grade. Again, I was surprised, this time when he got into the car after his first practice and said, "man, it feels good to hit someone again."
At the end of his eighth grade season, I asked him whether he thought he'd be trying out for high school football. He said no. I was relieved, honestly, but it wasn't because I was worried about him being injured. He felt that he had a better chance of playing soccer than he did in getting on the field in football. My relief came because I felt the same way and appreciated that he was mature enough to realize his position and make his own decision.
If it is repeated head blows parents are worried about, their kids shouldn't be playing soccer either. It's not just the headers or the collisions on the crosses and corner kicks. It's getting the ball kicked into your head and that becomes more violent as the boys grow older and stronger. Soccer is also a sport that becomes increasingly more physical the older boys get, as evidenced by my son's comment after a district playoff soccer game when he said, "man, I love hitting people."
Of course it's not just boys that get injured. A couple years ago I watched a girl soccer player get concussed when she got outmaneuvered by an opposing player, tripped over her own feet and landed awkwardly headfirst on the ground. My teenage daughter was run over playing defense, got her hand stomped on in the process and then refused to leave the pitch until the referee stopped play. The emergency room trip to check whether it was broken cost us around $1000.
I was worried how much pain she'd be in when she got home later with her mother, but instead I was treated to my daughter walking in the door yelling, "I'm brutal! I'm brutal" while waiving her bandaged arm in the air. She might as well have been yelling, "You don't have to worry about me as much as you thought you did", a notion I found disconcerting at
In the long list of worries I've had as a parent, the potential of injury from playing sports is nowhere near the top. If I had to pick number one it would be "learning how to drive a car" because the potential for death or injury is so much greater than nearly any other activity the possibilities are terrifying. There is little question as to whether or not my kids will be driving and that's the key to the decision-making process:
Do the benefits of said activity outweigh the risk?
In the case of driving a car as parents we easily say yes because in the Midwest it is a necessity. In the case of playing football (or other sports) we easily said yes because we felt that being involved in sports is also a necessity.
The second son has yet to ask, but if he does, the answer will almost certainly be "yes". Junior Seau's fate does not change that equation. I say that fully aware of the risk involved.