Liam Day wonders how parents letting a 5 year-old play football is much different than the “tanorexic” mother who put her 5 year-old in a tanning bed.
Two weeks ago I wrote on the death of a 43-year old former athlete who died of leukemia. Here I write about the death of a 43-year old former athlete who died at his own hands.
Junior Seau played linebacker in the NFL for almost twenty years and did it almost as well as anyone else ever has. His suicide comes as a shock to many fans. It may come as a wake up call too.
Much of the commentary written in the wake of his death has focused on the likelihood that brain trauma suffered hit after hit, game after game, season after season, contributed to Seau’s death. Andre Waters, a former NFL running back, committed suicide in 2006 at age 44. An analysis of his brain revealed that it looked like an 85-year old man’s, one, moreover, who was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
This begs many questions. Is it any longer safe to play football? Is there anything the NFL can do to make playing football safer? Are we, the league’s fans, complicit in the premature deaths of the players we cheer for and whose jerseys we buy? Perhaps more fundamentally, at what age is it appropriate to allow children to begin playing the sport?
None of these questions are exactly new. Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article in The New Yorker a number of years ago comparing football to dogfighting. The NFL’s television ratings continued to soar.
Yes, there has been and will be much handwringing over the next few weeks, but, I guarantee, as soon as summer camp opens, all will be forgotten. Fans will gear up for their fantasy football drafts, reporters will file stories about whether the Saints can overcome the suspension of their coach and four players or if the Packers and Patriots did enough during the offseason to shore up their defenses, and the owners will probably even go back to pushing for an 18-game regular season, which, if anything should be clear by this point, isn’t in the best interest of the players’ health.
I’m not sure what it will take to make a dent in the NFL’s popularity. And I’m not sure what it says about our society that, at the dawn of the 21st century, football reigns supreme in America’s athletic firmament. The only other sport that approaches it is car racing.
Of course, football isn’t the only violent sport. It isn’t even the most violent. That designation would have to go to boxing or ultimate fighting, but boxing’s popularity has been declining for 40 years and I can’t imagine, or perhaps I don’t want to imagine, that UFC will ever be anything other than a sport on our society’s fringe.
Football, though? The Super Bowl has become our national holiday. College football wields an influence over our state colleges and universities that undermines their missions. Perhaps the best television drama of the last decade was about the travails of a high school football coach in a town whose raison d’être seemed to be little more than to support the high school football team, a show based on a movie based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about a real town. Pop Warner football is a national organization with more than 400,000 participants as young as 5.
Think about that. 5-year-olds playing football. It approaches child abuse. One of the most popular stories on the internet last week was about the tanorexic mother who brought her 5-year-old daughter to the tanning salon. She had her daughter taken from her by child protective services. We should do no less to the parents who sign their 5-year-old sons up to play Pop Warner football. What, really, is the difference? Both parents are making decisions on behalf of their children, knowingly exposing them to activities that, though legal for adults, pose significant health risks that are now well-documented.
I have heard the argument before from football fans, who attempt to absolve themselves of complicity in the harm being done to the players who entertain them on Sundays during the fall, that the men who put themselves in harm’s way are adults who have made the decision to play football of their own free will. Some say that to them the trade seems reasonable, a trade that they themselves might even make if they had the talent, that in exchange for a shortened life they’d happily take the riches and fame football affords.
But NFL players don’t just materialize fully formed on our television sets as 21-year old rookies. They’ve been playing the game for years, some since they were as young as 5. Is a 5-year old capable of exercising his free will in the choice to play football? Is a 12-year old? Is a 16-year old?
We have any number of laws proscribing the choices children and adolescents can make to engage in activities that are deemed bad or potentially harmful to them. Children cannot drink, they cannot smoke, depending on the state, they cannot engage in sexual intercourse with adults until they are 16 or 18. As a society, we have passed these laws because we understand that, developmentally, children have not the necessary faculty to weigh the dangers these activities pose and make the decisions on their own. In short, they lack full frontal lobe development. Football should be treated no differently.
Photo courtesy of jdanvers