Benefits versus risks in youth contact sports

Monday, October 6, 2014

By Sean Rhodes, proud dad and Lake Forest Park resident

Last Saturday morning, as I drove my 5th grade son to the Queen Anne football stadium, there was a sense of excitement in the air. What would the other team be like? Did he remember all of the plays the coach had gone over yesterday? Would his team be victorious? Would he have to endure the bitter taste of defeat? Worse yet, an injury. Yes, maybe even a concussion. It is in the news a lot, but it has never happened to him. These same concerns run through my mind every Saturday during football season.

The national media attention on the risk of concussions in youth football has reached high levels in recent years(1). There are now highly funded studies on the effects of concussions in American football as former NFL players come forward with lawsuits for brain damage caused by frequent blows to the head. Even President Obama has weighed in on the subject. He stated that although he enjoys watching football, he wouldn’t let his son play the game (if, hypothetically, he had a son). The dropping rate of participation in youth football is significant and well documented.(2) Yet, the popularity of this sport doesn’t seem to be waning in viewership, as can be seen by hordes of Seattle Seahawks fans as they passionately support their beloved 2014 Superbowl Champion.

To its advocates, the game brings people together based on core values like teamwork, courage, and sacrifice. To its critics, it’s a game for thugs who do violent things in front of crazed fans. So the question remains, why would anyone let their son play this game? The answer falls into three different categories:

1) Rite of Passage. Football is a cultural “rite of passage” for many American boys. To many, the benefits of camaraderie with coaches and peers and the regular exercise outweigh the risk of a concussion. Since its origins in the early 1920’s, American football has grown to be the most viewed sport in the nation. The Superbowl remains the most popular event on American television(3) Football is also still king at the college level. The University of Washington just signed a 5 year contract with its beloved new coach, Chris Petersen, for $18 million! Petersen is the highest paid coach in the Pac 12(4). From high school games on Friday nights, to college games on Saturdays, to professional games on Sundays, Americans love to watch football. This has an obvious message to the young boys of our society. If you want to be accepted as a tough and courageous, then it sure helps to play football!

2) Accessible and Inclusive. The sport is a convenient, affordable after-school activity. It is also very inclusive. Even at the high school level, players who aren’t skilled enough to start in the games still get to practice with the team. The same can’t be said for hockey, lacrosse, water polo and other sports that require expensive equipment, coaching fees, monthly dues and private memberships. It is truly an all-American sport because everyone who wants to play can play. Those who enjoy the sport range from dwellers of the poorest ghettos to inhabitants of the wealthiest hamlets. American football is one of the few forums for social interactions among diverse populations in this country (poor, rich, white, black). Everyone is equal on the football field. The only distinction is athletic ability and passion for the game. Another consideration for a lot of parents is physical activity for their child. If a boy doesn’t play football after school, he may just sit in the living room playing his X-box. Childhood obesity rates climb every year(5). By the time junior high rolls around, most team sports are cut sports. Football is one of the few exceptions.

3) Diversity of athletic talent. Another explanation for the sport’s popularity is it can accommodate a large variety of body types and skill sets. Are you good at kicking but not much else? You can be a kicker. Are you big, heavy and quick but can’t run fast for more than a few yards at a time? The offensive line is for you. Are you agile and fast? Try kick-off return. Are you aggressive and like to push and tackle people? You’d be good on the defensive line. Can you run fast and intercept a pass? Try out for cornerback. Are you good at memorizing plays, throwing and running quickly? Sounds like you’d make a great quarterback. The list goes on.

Considering the high numbers of people who play the game, football is still a relatively safe sport compared to other adrenaline sports such as skateboarding and hockey. The real division between those who are advocates and those who aren’t comes down to a philosophy about youth sports in general - those who believe intentional physical contact in youth sports is acceptable and those who don’t. As parents try to deal with the benefits versus the health risks of this popular sport, the question remains, if not football, then what? As for my son, he will finish out this season and avoid tackling with his head down. Next year, we’ll have to assess the risks again.

3 NFL:America's Choice" (PDF). National Football League. 2007. Archived from the original on August 8, 2007. Retrieved 2007-08-15.


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