(Spoiler Alert: The hypocrite I'm writing about is me. Not you. Me. Well, maybe you as well. But we'll get to that in the discussion portion of this post, I suppose.)
"Still, football has bigger long-term problems than lawsuits. Football is entertainment in which the audience is expected to delight in gladiatorial action that a growing portion of the audience knows may cause the players degenerative brain disease. Not even football fans, a tribe not known for savoring nuance, can forever block that fact from their excited brains." -- George Will*, "Football's problem with danger on the field isn't going away," August 3, 2012.
Will lays out starkly how harsh an offseason this has been for football. It seems that hardly a month has gone by without another former NFL player killing himself with links to brain trauma, presumably caused by football, being detected in the autopsy. And though any findings into what looking at the brain of Junior Seau haven't yet been released, it's hard for me to imagine anyone who follows football closely hearing the news of his suicide at the age of 43 in May and not immediately wondering if there was a link -- if there had to be a link -- between his suicide and his playing football for so many years, especially in light of the news that his death was caused by a self-inflicted gunshot to the chest, not the head.
In the wake of these suicides, the increasing (and, to me, undeniable) evidence emerging about the long-term effects of playing football have left me struggling as I try to reconcile my love of football with my role as a parent.
(*: Author's Note: For those predisposed to dislike Will's politics, this is a nonpartisan, and excellent, column. Please approach with an open mind.)So here's what I'm personally dealing with. I am a huge football fan. I recognize the medical risks of playing the sport, particularly in light of all of the research made public over the last couple of years. I support tinkering at the margins -- continually improving equipment, increasing penalties against unnecessarily violent actions within the game, etc. -- to make it, marginally, a safer sport, but I believe at some point the notion of assumption of the risk must take hold for those who chose to play the sport. I not only strongly oppose those few arguing to ban the sport altogether (efforts which strike me as primarily look-at-me grandstanding by media whores -- look at the TV time Bissinger was able to generate off of that column) but also proposed rule changes, such as eliminating kickoffs, which would fundamentally change the way the game is played.
I'm also the father of a three-year-old boy. It's hard to imagine better circumstances in which to raise a son who would have a chance to become a very good football player. Looking at his parents and projected growth charts, he'll probably grow up to be 6'4" or 6'5" or so, and on the athletic side of that height, not the skinny beanpole side. He is being raised by two parents who believe strongly in the role participating in sports from an early age can have on the healthy and total education and growth of a child. And he'll be growing up in the football-mad upper middle class suburbia of a football-mad state, where the opportunities for him to be involved with football from an early age, and to be exposed to top-notch coaching and training, will be plentiful.
And neither his mother nor I want him to have anything to do with playing football.
We don't think we'd actually proactively ban him from playing competitive football if he expressed a strong desire to do so. But we will do everything we can within our parental persuasive powers to discourage him from pursuing the pigskin, steering him towards baseball, golf, soccer, lacrosse, swimming or whatever else in which he might demonstrate an interest.
At the end of the day, we don't think playing football over the long-term would be in the best interests, to say the least, of our son's health.
But I'm perfectly OK sitting in the stands of DKR-TMS watching and cheering on the sons of other fathers, other parents, as they wear the burnt orange and white and, in my mind, more likely than not, expose themselves to a greater risk of long-term health problems than they would be had they pursued other sports. I plan to do so again, enthusiastically, this fall.
Hence, I increasingly feel like a hypocrite.
Which brings me back to Will's column. Though my wife and I are hardly the type who are bubble-wrapping our child (soon to be children, yay us!) and putting a helmet on him when he rides his tricycle like a madman, we are very much the type of parents Will claims are steering their children "away from youth football, diverting the flow of talent to the benefit of other sports."
I have to think we're hardly alone in feeling this way. Though football is easily the king of American sports today, one has to wonder if we've reached a tipping point regarding the long-term retention of that status as talent starts gravitating towards other sports as more and more parents look at the available evidence and say "not for my children". Will Texas fans be as enthusiastic about filling DKR-TMS 100,000 strong every week if it becomes evident, over years, that the quality of the game has slipped because many athletes who would have chosen to compete at the top levels of the collegiate game in previous years no longer do?
Football would hardly be alone in moving down, or even slipping away entirely, in the consciousness of the American sports fan if this were to happen for these reasons. Just look at boxing: even a generation ago, when I was a child, prize fights were more often than not eagerly-anticipated Events with a capital E, and even amateur matches, such as full cards featuring the US Boxing Team against the Soviet or Cuban teams, were staples of national television, even in the pre-ESPN era. Nowadays? Frankly, who really cares anymore about boxing?
I do want to stress, before ending this, that I hope no one reading this takes away an implicit criticism from me at those who play football, or are involved in the sport in a professional capacity, or, perhaps most importantly, allow their sons to play the sport on a competitive basis. Far from it. My wife and I have reached our own conclusions based upon the available evidence, but others can certainly look at that evidence themselves and reach different, and equally correct, conclusions. My wife and I certainly don't have any sort of monopoly on determining what's right and what's wrong in terms of raising children, and what might be right for us isn't going to be right for others.
That being said, I am curious to know how other BON readers, presumably all big football fans as well, have reconciled their love for the sport with the increasing awareness that the sport they love almost certainly leads to premature deaths. There are certainly no easy answer here.