In a world where sports is everywhere I will be the first to admit that I not only love it, I live it. I wake up at 7:30am to watch my Arsenal play live from England. I went to FSU and will die a Seminole. I went to the first ever playoff game the Orlando Magic were in where Nick Anderson devastatingly missed four free throws to seal the game. I went to the first ever Lightning game at the Florida State Fairgrounds as well as their first ever home playoff appearance. I went to Buccaneer games when they were draped in orange and no one thought they’d ever win a Super Bowl (and stalked all the players for autographs). I love my teams and I share that experience with my son in hopes that he’ll be passionate about sports one day, too.
Before I knew it, my son not only watched the games with me, he started emulating what he saw on TV. By 18 months he was shooting an authentic soccer ball into tight areas designated as the goal and drop kicking balls far better than most kids his age and I’m not trying to be braggy…too much (see video below). Before he was two he was shooting the basketball into the hoop with no difficulty. Now he has a football and loves to throw it across the room.
However, with all the talk these days about head trauma in football, and people asking ‘should kids play football?’, I’m starting to wonder as his parent, if I should limit him to specific sports. I will say that my wife and I are hesitant to let him ever play hockey or wrestling due to the obvious physical effects that they carry with them (lost teeth and cauliflower ear respectively). But should football now fall into that category?
Just this week former Washington Redskins and Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antwaan Randle El came out saying that he regrets playing football instead of playing baseball due to what he says are traumatic effects from hits to his head. In an interview this week he told the Post-Gazette he has serious memory lapses, “I ask my wife things over and over again, and she’s like, ‘I just told you that.’ I’ll ask her three times the night before and get up in the morning and forget. Stuff like that. I try to chalk it up as I’m busy, I’m doing a lot, but I have to be on my knees praying about it, asking God to allow me to not have these issues and live a long life. I want to see my kids raised up. I want to see my grandkids.”
In full disclosure, Randle El was part of concussion lawsuit against the NFL in a Manhattan federal court alleging the NFL “has done everything in its power to hide the issues and mislead players concerning the risks associated with concussions,” according to The Village Voice.
With lawsuits like this, as well as the movie Concussion being recently released alleging the NFL covered up the long-term effects of hits to the head, there is a decently large group of people saying there is a “war against the NFL” while others are saying science is continually getting better and proving that the sport holds a lot of dangers within it.
I’m not someone who likes to side with one extreme or the other so as a parent I’m inclined to explore the space between. I know as a NFL fan that there have been rules made clearly to either curb hard-impact hits to the head (like the newer Targeting and Defenseless Receiver rules as well as hitting a quarterback in the head always being called a foul) or to stop further damage if a traumatic hit is landed to a player’s head (player has to come off the field and be assessed by an independent 3rd party specialist). So that right there tells me there’s something to all the talk about hits to the head causing long-term damage. On the flip-side, wherever there is an opportunity to make money and extort a vulnerability to a multi-billion dollar corporation, people will be there with palms up trying to profit off of it.
My next course of thought is to use logic as my compass. Logic says to me that the huge hits to the head, that the NFL are trying to prevent, must be the hits that are causing all the long-term damage and when I look at the NFL those hits are more uncommon than common and those types of hits are even more uncommon in little league because most kids don’t have the education, skill, or toughness to land such blows. However, after a little homework I’m realizing that logic cannot be your guide because logic is only logical to the person using it…meaning, it’s not concrete evidence.
So that only leads me to the next obvious course of thought, science. Now who would have ever thought that science could be viewed as controversial as such things as politics and religion but in this day and age it’s been under attack and maybe deservedly so. How come one week I see an article saying artificial sweeteners will give you cancer and kill you yet a week later I read something saying that artificial sweeteners can only have negative effects if taken in huge doses (which can be said about almost anything)? Then I read one week that playing video games makes you violent but then I read the next week video games help strengthen young and old brains alike. Now I’m reading in one place that any hit to the head can contribute to brain damage while another source says the odds of getting hit too hard, too many times, are slim. It seems most scientific discoveries always have a counter discovery proving otherwise and that’s because of one reason, money. Too many people, groups, lobbyists, corporations, etc, have too much at stake to let one determination be called fact.
However, I don’t want to discount science completely but I thought, “Where can I find a source of science that is not bias (in the way that there’s not a monetary interest attached to it), that I personally trust, and has the same interest as me when it comes to keeping my son safe?” and the only source that came to mind was a friend of mine, Lucas Shaffer PA-C, who has been in neurosurgery for over 9 years. He is currently at OhioHealth Neuroscience Center but in full disclosure used to work at NorthShore University where Julian Bailes, the Doctor that the movie Concussion is based on, was his chairman.
I spoke to Lucas in detail about the subject and he provided some information that proved both surprising and eye opening. “The science behind all of this is still in its infancy however what is being found out is that it’s not the ESPN Top Ten Plays type of hits that are causing the damage but that it’s the type of hits to the head lineman sustain down after down, series after series,” he continued, “Currently all the information isn’t gathered that would point out if little league players are completely susceptible to this but there is a lot of information coming in that is being studied. [For example] Youth football is implementing chips in the helmets to calculate how many hits kids are taking in a year but to determine if this is enough to cause damage studies are still underway.”
Lucas also told me that he has seen multiple middle school, high school and college football players during his time in neurosurgery and that he has seen them in the acute and chronic settings displaying signs of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) which were proven by functional MRI. CTE has been well proven to be associated with decreased memory, impulsive/aggressive behavior, depression/suicidal behavior and dementia.
When I asked him how likely it would be that continual hits to the head, of someone who is still cognitively developing, could slow down their learning process he told me he thought it was highly likely since there is more and more literature coming out now proving so. The problem is the interest in this subject had recently not been high enough for funding and research on this topic (in the last 10 years) so academic papers are just now starting to come out proving this likeliness.
When I asked Lucas if he would let his son play football he said, “If he comes to me and says, ‘Dad, I really want to play football more than anything else’ then we’ll sit down and have an in depth talk.” I could tell, like me, Lucas struggled with whether letting his son play football was worth the risk or not but also like me I knew he felt the same as I did when he told me, “I never knew I could love something more than myself until I had my son and I’d hate to ever risk putting him in harm’s way.”
That got me to think. Antwaan Randle El had stated that he wished he’d played baseball instead, since he was drafted by the Cubs in the 14th round, but he didn’t because his parents made him go to school. I understand two things here 1) his parents wanted him to get an education and that can’t be faulted and 2) his parents encouraged this during a time when there was no conversation on whether or not football held long term cognitive damage. I just know I would never want my son to feel like I’m at fault for any type of brain damage because unlike Randle El’s parents, I live during a time where we’re having this conversation which doesn’t give me an excuse.
What are your thoughts? In the most civilized way please let us know in the comments below where you’re at in this conversation and please remember to be respectful as we’re all trying to do this thing called parenting the best we can.