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Concussion fears and all, one mom's defense of youth football

When you sign your child up to play youth football, no one tells you that, as a parent, you’ll also face opponents who hit hard.Your kid wears a helmet and pads for protection, but nothing shields moms and dads from the verbal criticism and shake-your-head disdain from anti-football voices.“Aren’t you worried about concussions?”“Don’t you think it’s a violent sport? ““Why would y
Hard knocks: 10-year-old Jayan White tackles an opponent.
Hard knocks: 10-year-old Jayan White tackles an opponent.Courtesy of Sam Moreau / Today

When you sign your child up to play youth football, no one tells you that, as a parent, you’ll also face opponents who hit hard.

Your kid wears a helmet and pads for protection, but nothing shields moms and dads from the verbal criticism and shake-your-head disdain from anti-football voices.

“Aren’t you worried about concussions?”

“Don’t you think it’s a violent sport? “

“Why would you put your kid in such a dangerous game?”

The scrutiny has intensified with recent examples of youth football gone wrong, like the 52-0 blowout Pee Wee football game this fall in Massachusetts that resulted in five concussions among the losing team, all boys aged 10-12: NPR reported that Pop Warner officials suspended the coaches of both teams for the season and permanently banned the three officials who refereed the game. The questions from naysayers are stoked by the growing body of medical research that points out football’s ills.

From the American Academy of Pediatrics:

  • Football has the highest incidence of concussion in youth males.
  • Young athletes are more susceptible to the effects of a concussion because their brains are still developing, and appropriate management is essential for reducing the risk of long-term complications.

And, according to a CNN documentary on youth football's concussion crisis:

  • The Sports Concussion Institute cites that 1 in 10 high school football players sustain a concussion each season, and 35 percent of those players sustain more than one concussion in a given season.

There is no refuting that football is a dangerous sport, and I know I won’t ever change the minds of the doubters. As a football parent, yes, the research alarms me. I am unnerved every time a player stays down a little too long after a hit during practices or games. (For the record, I also get rattled occasionally when my daughter goes for a header in soccer, which has the highest incidence of concussions among girls.)

But with a 10-year-old boy who is, for now, passionate about the game he has been playing for three years, I hold on – sometimes for dear life – to the positives of the sport. Fortunately, there are many, and this is what I think about every time someone judges me for letting my son play.

Football can be safe. (Safer, anyway.)

I’ve had my share of discussions with my son’s coaches (including my husband) on how to make my child as safe as possible playing football. The consistent feedback is that kids are at great risk if they are taught to hit and tackle the wrong way, which is why good coaching is imperative. Equipment such as helmets, mouthguards and pads are more high-tech and protective than ever. It’s also important that coaches teach safety and know how to deal with injuries and know when it’s OK to let a kid keep playing after a big hit. (In Washington state, where we live, a player is required to have medical permission to return to play after a concussion.)

Some youth football leagues, such as Pop Warner, have instituted practice restrictions to limit the amount of player-to-player contact, since most concussions to kids occur in practice. Bottom line, safety starts with coaches. Make sure you have ones you can trust with your child’s well-being. I do.  

Football is the ultimate team sport.

My two kids have played baseball, softball, tennis, basketball, soccer and much more. More than any sport, football reflects the old motto that there is no  “I” in team. In football, one player can’t carry a team and every player must do his or her job – in sync.  What’s more, functioning as a team can make the difference between someone being safe or getting hurt.  As my son’s coach, Mark Landes, has told his players many times: “If a right fielder is not paying attention in baseball, a run might score. But if a football player is not focused and paying attention, a teammate might get hit really hard, maybe hurt.” Even as young as 10, kids understand this accountability and responsibility. 

Football teaches discipline and focus.

The youth football season in our town starts the first week of August and goes through mid-November. As of this week, my son has  perfect attendance (like the majority of his teammates) at more than 40 practices and seven games. All of the practices require great mental discipline. Every little thing counts, from straight lines in warm-ups  to proper focus. They have to learn plays, defenses and formations. They have to know their jobs as well as know their teammates’ jobs.  In his role as quarterback, my son’s study of the Xs and Os is impressive. As he gets older, I hope this concentration transfers to his academic, not to mention professional, life. At the very least, right now football helps with getting homework done, even it’s just me threatening to tell his coaches if he doesn’t.

Football teaches toughness and dedication.

Football is not easy. It is physically demanding. Kids learn that they can do more than they ever thought. They test their courage to go in and tackle bigger, stronger kids. They learn the difference between being hurt and being injured. The toughness comes with its share of tears. While my child hasn't had a concussion, he's had the wind knocked out of him and there have been times when I, from my perch in the stands, cringe at hearing him cry out loud after an extra-fierce hit. But ultimately kids learn to overcome fatigue, pain and uncertainty.  It takes dedication to stay tough, and strong camaraderie fuels that dedication. As country star Kenny Chesney sings in his popular football anthem:

It's 'I got your number, I got your back' when your back's against the wall

You mess with one man, you got us all, we're the boys of fall

My son’s team is currently in the quarterfinals of the end-of-season playoffs. If they win, they keep playing. If they lose, they are done. Come Saturday, I will once again be watching, wearing my son’s jersey number, and praying that all goes well and no one gets hurt. 

For us "parents of fall," this is how we play the game.

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