A letter urging concussion-weary fathers to let their sons play the game that gave Greg Ryan so much.
To the father contemplating whether or not he should allow his son to play football:
The NFL season, thank Goodell, is upon us. My Packers are playing Thursday night, a half-year removed from the culmination of their quest to return Lombardi’s trophy to Green Bay, a championship it seemed, at points, they might not get a chance to defend in 2011 because of the lockout. But lo, the labor discord has dissolved, and the talking heads are back to ranting about neutral zone infractions, not court injunctions.
In the scramble to shed the bad vibes leftover from spring and summer, it appears the story that hung a shadow over last season has been blocked out, ignored for convenience’s sake. You, fretful patriarch, know of what I speak: Head injuries.
Last October, a weekend of brutish hits left at least six NFL players with concussions, and for the first time in its history the league began threatening helmet-to-helmet hitters with suspensions and slapping them with heavy fines. Some commentators forecast doom for the future of football. Among them was Tony Kornheiser, host of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption and a one-time commentator for Monday Night Football, who declared that in half a century the country would find the game so abhorrent it would be played only on barges.
Maybe Kornheiser’s right. The argument against football seems to grow stronger by the month, and not just for the professionals who experience the game at its most violent. The autopsied brain of Owen Thomas, a 21-year-old Ivy League football player who killed himself, showed early signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a type of brain damage linked to concussions that can cause dementia-like symptoms. A Purdue University study suggests subconcussive hits—the kind players experience every day in practices and games, without any outward symptoms—can affect brain functioning.
Nevertheless, I want to tell you: Let your son play football.
Now, I’m not a doctor. Nor am I a father. I’m a 25-year-old journalist who played the game, not spectacularly, but not atrociously, from fifth grade through my senior year of high school. Well, not straight through. The summer before my sophomore year, I told my parents, over a six-hour, traffic-clogged car ride home from a week’s vacation in Cape Cod, that I had decided to quit the sport. I cried—blubbered, really. Football was a big part of who I was, and more than that, it was a big part of what I perceived others believed me to be. It was the only sport I was much good at. (Once in a Little League game, I fielded a grounder at shortstop and, terrified as to what unintended corner of the diamond the ball might sail if I attempted to toss it to the second baseman, decided to sprint and hand it to him instead, reaching the bag a half-second before the runner. The only points I managed during a basketball season a few years later came when I took an inbound pass at half-court, spun 180 degrees, and swished a three-pointer. In the other team’s basket.)
But, as 15-year-olds do, I was having an identity crisis. The thing was, I played football, but I didn’t feel like a football player. I was quiet, loved school. I spent Friday nights at the indie movie theater. I liked Jimmy Eat World and Weezer.
So I decided to quit, to try to be someone else. My dad, even though I knew he loved to watch me play, supported me 100 percent. I thought I’d learn guitar, start a band. (That never happened.) I dreaded the first day of school, when I had to face my former teammates, but the day passed with only a few friendly inquiries as to why I wasn’t playing, and I forged ahead in my new life.
I came back.
I came back to the game the very next season, because even though I didn’t feel like a football player, I was. If you’ve never played football yourself, or maybe even if you have, you might think football is a sport full of meatheads, jocks who love nothing more than a good squat thrust. And that’s the case, to an extent, maybe a large extent.
But there are also those players who are trying to prove something to themselves. They are trying to prove they are not afraid. Not in a I-want-to-tackle-the-school-bully kind of way, although maybe that’s how it manifests itself. I’m talking about something more elemental. I’m talking about the thrill of putting on pads, lining up across from someone, and seeing what happens when he launches his body at you with the sole intention of bringing you to the ground.
Because that’s the element football possesses that baseball, soccer, tennis, chess, and children’s yoga do not. Like all sports, it teaches discipline and hard work. Like all team sports, it teaches cooperation and sublimation of self, if success doesn’t go straight to the head.
The difference is the physicality. You exert yourself in a way you normally never would, with people by whom you would normally be intimidated. Football allows for the sweet relief of total release. There is no space for neuroses between the snap and the whistle. You run and explode into other people and try to avoid other people exploding into you. You are knocked on your ass, and you are expected to get back up and go again. Looking back now, this was all the appeal for me, someone who has struggled with anxiety my entire life. I could play and just…let go. The eight years I played football were the least anxious years of my life. It wasn’t a coincidence.
I realize none of this addresses the sport’s dangers. Concussions are a serious injury, there can be no doubt about that now. Serious enough that if a son of mine suffered one or two of them, I’d probably pull him from the sport, no matter how much he protested or how much he had grown to love it.
But there may be a future for football, despite the gloomy predictions from some corners. The game has changed before in the name of safety—Teddy Roosevelt helped save it from extinction in the early 20th century by pushing colleges into putting more referees on the field and penalizing dirty play more severely—and it can change again. Not that you should assume that will happen. Stay aware. Read Alan Schwarz’s Pulitzer-worthy reporting on concussions in The New York Times. Monitor the condition of your son’s helmet, a piece of equipment that is woefully underregulated, though the issue is now receiving more attention.
The game is worth saving. I’d have been worse off if I had never played, and maybe your son would, too. If he is like me and knows how physical the sport is, but is drawn to it despite that, and maybe because of that—if he sees something in it he cannot find on any other playing field—please consider allowing him to give it a try.