Recently, Slate's parenting podcast "Mom and Dad Are Fighting," aired a segment on kids playing tackle football. As my own kid (oldest, ninth grade) has started doing this very thing for the first time, I listened with interest, and responded to the conversation via email, and am sharing a version of that email here. I'll add that this captures much of what I've found myself saying to people who give me side-eye or offer outright judgment when they learn that my kid plays high school football. It doesn't happen often, but it happens enough to be a real thing. People + football = opinions, it turns out. Read through for an update, of sorts.
Over the years, I've shifted from "no way" to "okay" and perhaps even "yay!" on the subject of football and my oldest kid, who is now a ninth grader and member of the freshman football team at Classical High School in Providence, Rhode Island (go Purple!).
Though he's been wanting to play football for years, this is his first time on a team. When he was younger, I "no way"-ed his interest. His dad and I didn't particularly share it, and football seemed like a bummer combination: dangerous, time-consuming, and endlessly expensive, necessitating intensive, parent-driven fundraising commitments. Clearly, no way.
High school approached, and at freshman orientation, he indicated interest in both soccer and football as fall sports. When the time came to choose, he broached the football subject again, and I knew that a flat "no way" wasn't going to cut it. Complex factors drove his interest in football: branching out socially (most of his close friends are soccer players), physical suitability (the kid is big, strong, and quick), and autonomy (football was finally within reach, at school - he didn't need us to help him find a team or make the necessary commitments).
So we researched. We talked with football families at his high school about the coaching staff's training and responsiveness to head and other injuries. We talked with the coaches themselves about their training and experience and the ways they'd deal with a football novice (the coach's first words to me: "How do YOU feel about this?" Good question, coach). My son interviewed his pediatrician about football injuries. His pediatrician's take: kids get hurt in football and soccer, pretty much in equal numbers in high school. They are injured in other high-intensity contact sports, too. Avoiding football while embracing other sports in the interest of injury prevention is irrational.
After our info gathering, I felt that my son's serious interest in playing for his high school's football team, and all the good that might accrue as a result, outweighed my concerns, which didn't necessarily apply immediately. Worries about the effects of multiple concussions and other impact injuries may matter if he plays in college (highly unlikely) or professionally (vanishingly unlikely). But now, long-terms concerns about injury to his brain, body, and soul aren't rational.
As I listened to the three of you cover this ground, I identified with each of you in some ways, but also suspect that none of you are yet dealing with the specific focus and passion of an adolescent, who can and should have a meaningful say in the matter. Ultimately, had I forbade my son to play football in a carefully-run program, I would have been indulging my own prejudices to the detriment of my son's growing independence. Saying yes to football has strengthened our relationship meaningfully in ways that help him see that we care about his welfare and trust his judgement.
And he loves it. He's playing a lot, as a tight end, defensive end, kicker, and punter. I see him thriving as he masters new skills, makes new friends, and adjusts to high school's challenges and delights While I still don't love football, I love this kid wildly, and am glad that he helped me get to yes on this issue.
Update: At last week's home game, a player from the opposing team was injured onfield at the start of the second half. The game stopped, and as far as I could tell, the coaching staff handled the situation as needed. Eventually, an ambulance arrived. Paramedics put on a neck brace and backboard and carried him off the field on a stretcher. Thank God his family was there, and I dearly hope he is now doing well and not significantly banged up.
I realize that this could happen in any high-intensity contact sport, but it was still scary. Though we understand that this particular incident didn't actually involve a head injury, it nevertheless prompted us to talk with our kid about concussion symptoms and the urgent need to report them to his coaches if he were to experience any symptoms, a conversation I avidly hope that neither my kid nor any of his teammates (okay, nor any kid, ever, anywhere) ever need to have.