I have been a football fan for some time. The heyday of the Dallas Cowboys in the seventies, when Tom Landry was a god of the gridiron, is still fresh in my head. Even when I was eight, I would have killed for Landry's calm demeanor, the center of a storm of battle on a field of green. He was my hero, along with Roger Staubach. Surrounded by military men drinking German bier, I watched Jackie Smith drop a pass in the end zone of the Super Bowl and cried with the rest of the Dallas fans at the party. During my college years, Monday nights were sacrosanct, as all the girls in my dorm gathered around the television to watch Monday Night Football.
Every football game is a battle of sorts. The players on the field try to beat each other to a pulp to get a ball to move down the field. Heads get knocked around along with the bodies as everyone fights for the ball. It's exciting when there's a spectacular tackle on a play, it's difficult to deny that. There's a thrill that rolls through every fan when a team scores a touchdown, a vicarious victory that carries some people on a high for days.
In Texas, boys and girls are taught from birth that football is king. To be a high school football player in the state of Texas is to be vaguely worshipped by the masses. There are parades and pep rallies and autograph signings before they even get their diploma. In some of the small towns, football is the only entertainment available, and those teens are the closest thing to a celebrity that most people will ever meet.
It's that big a deal.
When we arrived in San Antonio after leaving Germany, my brother was
dutifully signed up for Pop Warner football because he was expected to
do so. It didn't matter that he was only 8--he played. The helmet seemed much too large for my brother to carry on his head, but he did it. I
was usually dragged along to practices, and when I did not have a book
in hand, I watched my brother play.
The sound of the helmets striking
each other always reminded me of eggs cracking, but that sound meant
that the boys were doing what they were supposed to. Sometimes a boy "got his bell rung" by a particularly rough tackle, but I don't remember anyone ever saying the 'C' word. In most cases, the kid was back in the game after five minutes on the bench. It wasn't that the coaches were inattentive or heartless--football is all about toughness. "Play it through" is what most players were told, because that's what the professionals did.
But the 'C' word in football is a big deal, it turns out. Concussions, once thought to be minor blips on the brain's radar, are indeed a very big deal, as new research shows. Repeated concussions can kill, if the brain swells as a result of a hit. Over time, those hits to the head can cause all sorts of degenerative issues, including memory loss and dementia. It's scary. While the NFL and the college teams can afford the expensive helmets to protect their players, the millions of kids who play high school football and younger don't have that luxury. They never could. I now wonder how many of the football players I knew will be statistics in twenty or thirty years, as they hit what should be their golden years.
I don't want that for my son. Right now, my child is smart, curious, and interested in the world around him. He is observant and eager to learn. He is friendly and outgoing, happy and carefree. I want him to stay that way. I am his Mama, and I want him to stay as safe as he can be. I'm not overprotective. I have done my research. I know that all sports carry some risk of injury. My child could just as easily be injured playing basketball, baseball, or soccer. I know that. But since football tops the list in the injury odds, I'd rather he avoid that sport altogether.
I still enjoy watching the NFL games on Sundays. It would be weird to deny all those years of football watching. I still get a little thrill when the quarterback takes the snap and steps back while the offensive line tries to protect him for the several seconds necessary for the play to advance. I still love a well executed play, and cheer when a pass is caught by a receiver. I celebrate the end zone dances just like most people. My hope is that, with this new information, the game will get safer for every player.
Until then, my kid will not play.