The other day, I heard something striking: “If 10 percent of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that is the end of football.”
I was watching the Frontline documentary League of Denial: the NFL’s Concussion Crisis. The words were spoken in the early 2000s by an NFL team doctor responding to a neuropathologist who argued, based on evidence, that playing football can cause brain damage. The NFL doctor didn’t see it that way; he was more concerned about that ten percent and the ruin of his industry.
And so the NFL lied to us for several years. They refused to look at the evidence—the autopsied brains of former NFL players—and they told us, they told their own players, that helmets work, that they prevent brain damage. They told us that the players, and therefore our children, were safe.
I first started reading about football and brain damage around 2008. My local paper, The Chicago Tribune, wrote several reports on it. My son was an infant at the time, so I had no immediate concern, but I grew more and more anxious the more I read. I rarely watch football, but I understand its cultural significance, its hold on our country and communities. And I doubted my inner voice as just that of an overprotective mother. I mean—this was football. This was a sport sanctioned by parents across the country, who obviously love their children as much as I love mine. I’d be ready once my son was out of diapers and ready to play, right?
So I worried—how was I going to handle it when my son begged to start football, when I reluctantly gave in, and when I had to watch as his brain, not yet fully developed, got knocked around in his head?
Then I realized: I won’t have to. Not any of it. It makes perfect sense that I don’t want my son’s head repeatedly smashed against a chest or hip or shoulder or even a helmet. We were concerned every time, as a toddler, he fell and hit his forehead. Why would I enter him in a sport in which hitting his head was just part of the game? And then on top of it, in a culture that applauds “tough” players who play through injury?
The connection between repeated blows to the head and brain injury is clear. The connection between NFL players and brain damage has become clear. What’s not yet clear, apparently due to lack of study, is the effect of youth football on children. Do I want my son to be a case study?
I don’t care if they develop what they say are better helmets; they’ve told us that before. Plus, we have airbags, but I don’t want my son to endure repeated crash tests, however minor. And I don’t trust people whose main concern is money. When independent doctors start telling me it’s safe for my son to play football, then I’ll reconsider. My husband, an avid college football fan, supports the decision.
The truth is, the NFL has been more interested in profit than in protecting its players. The culture of football is horrendous, dominated by tight lips, closed doors, and tax breaks for millionaire and billionaire owners. (You did know you were funding their tax breaks, right?)
All that on top of the fact that they endanger they’re own players and, down the lineup, our children.
So, Mr. NFL Team Doctor: I’m a mother who perceives football as a dangerous sport. I don’t know if I’m part of a full ten percent yet, or if I’ll ever be, but my son will not play football. You will not have him.