Why My Son Won’t Play Football

Bonbon Break


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.

Newsweek: Defensive back Dwayne Gratz #27 (Connecticut) lands on his head while tackling wide receiver Conner Vernon #82 (Duke) during the 2013 Senior Bowl.

Newsweek: Defensive back Dwayne Gratz #27 (Connecticut) lands on his head while tackling wide receiver Conner Vernon #82 (Duke) during the 2013 Senior Bowl.


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28 thoughts on “Why My Son Won’t Play Football

  1. I could not agree more. I was relieved when Eric decided he did not want to play high school football. I played high school football and hurting the other guy has always been a big part of the game.

  2. Yep. No football for us! Our neighbor is the head of the local league, and his son is a very talented player. He asked us if our oldest son wanted to play, and I said we weren’t comfortable with it. He said he understood. “I worry about my son every single day,” he said, as he was packing up their equipment. For them, the chance that he will get a scholarship seems worth it now–but hindsight is always 20/20. Let’s hope that fact can one day overrule finance.

    • Geez, no kidding. I’m lucky that my son hasn’t shown interest yet and so we haven’t even had to have the conversation. It would be much harder had he already started the sport AND was very talented…happy I’m not that dad.

  3. My mom decided 25 years ago that my brother would not play football. It’s a decision she’s never, ever regretted. My brother played golf instead, also a fall sport. It’s an activity he enjoys to this day and one that has been helpful in terms of his business career. There are a lot more golf outings in the corporate world than there are pick-up football games. Glad you have a decision that makes you feel most comfortable and keeps that precious brain safe.

    • Thanks, Shannan. Yes, my dad was a golfer and he’s always told me to try to get my children interested in it because you can play it for life. Your mom had a lot of foresight, and backbone!

    • I’ve heard a lot about the injuries from soccer, and it makes me pause. There IS a lot to worry about, Brenda, and so you can’t worry about everything. I know injuries happen in any sport; I just can’t abide by entering him in a sport where violence is practically the whole point.

  4. Amen! Watch out for soccer, too. Even though AYSO prohibits players from heading the ball, kids try to play like the big world players – with no protective gear at all. It just makes no sense, but children don’t think of those possibilities.

  5. So well written. We don’t have boys so I haven’t had to make a decision on this one but if I did, I would be with you 100%. I hope more people make the same smart decision you did.

  6. I worry about this, too. And yet, my 4yo has played two sessoins of flag football and loves it. My husband does not see the danger. He thinks I’m being that proverbial “overprotective mom” you mentioned.

    In the meantime, I’m stymied. I really don’t want my son to move on to tackle football. But between my husband and our peers, I’m in the minority.

    Thanks for this post. It might be the start of a great conversation between my husband and I.

  7. My son definitely won’t play football. I’ve heard so many interviews and heard so many reports (including the Frontline one) about what happens to teenagers’ brains (which are still developing).

  8. I agree. I am also concerned about my adolescent daughter playing soccer b/c of the high # of concussions in her sport. Thank you for writing about this. When my son was 11 he fell out of a tree onto hard, icy ground and showed all the signs of a concussion (confusion, trouble communicating, fell asleep in the middle of the day right after it happened.) It was not taken seriously, and I have regrets about that.

  9. I’ve read a bit about this as well. Head injuries are nothing to fool around with and I can’t imagine a little helmet keeps one safe from repeated slamming into the ground. A couple of years ago, I saw my then 9-year-old son take a hit in the head with a soccer ball. He kept playing but I thought the coach should have pulled him out. It scared him (and me) and he hasn’t played again. Also, I think The New Yorker had an interesting article about Jack Kerouac and whether several head injuries contributed to his depression.

    Great post.

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