September 19, 2013

5 Reasons to Let a Kid Play Football (or Any Dangerous Sport).

Last night I was (reluctantly) watching Real Sports with Bryant Gumble with my husband.

I am not a sports person. I consider reading and writing a sport, as well as verbal sparring, and might use the phrase “Old Sport” ironically now and then, but aside from that, not a fan.

Nevertheless, this show was on and I was watching. They were focusing on the now-familiar story of the grievous injuries suffered in football. Featured, were three ex-professional football players, one who was diagnosed with some Parkinson’s-like condition and appeared frail and vacant, another who was wheelchair bound and could barely speak, and the third who was totally immobile, on a ventilator without which he could not breath, and able to communicate only by moving his eyeballs.

It was not exactly uplifting.

Particularly for me, whose fourth grade son just started playing full-contact tackle football.

When I tell people my son is playing football, they immediately get a concerned look on their face. “How do you feel about that?” they tactfully inquire.

How do I feel about it? I feel scared shitless, that’s how. But I’m still going to let him play.

Here’s why.. and why you might want to consider letting your kid walk on the wild side too.

1) He loves it.

No, I don’t let him do everything he loves. I don’t let him eat all of his Halloween candy Halloween night, I don’t let him start fires and I don’t let him drive the car. In terms of experiences, this lucky kid has been exposed to the lion’s share; art, music, baseball, basketball, golf, swimming, theatre…you name it. But I’ve never seen his eyes light up as they do when he puts on that football uniform.

I recently discovered he’s been sleeping with his football. It almost broke my heart when I went to make his bed and I found, tucked into the comforter right by his pillow, this pee wee sized football where in the past a stuffed animal might have been. If your kid loves something like my kid loves football… even if it’s something a shade dangerous, I hope you’re willing to let him get out there and do it.

2) We feed our kids fear like Monsanto feeds us GMOs, and I’m getting a little tired of it.

Am I the only person left who remembers riding in the “back back” of the station wagon on the highway with no seat belts? Who admits they never wore a bike helmet until they were well into their thirties? Who traveled abroad with no cell phone, no plan and no money? I am not advocating unsafe habits.

When we know better, we do better, and bike helmets and seat belts are a good thing. But so is taking a calculated risk in order to experience life, rather than being holed up with our “no’s” and our “can’ts”, peering out from behind the curtain of our safe, little room.

3) You can do lots of things to lessen the risk.

In the case of football, my husband assures me all the equipment is dramatically different than when he played 40-years ago. Back then, evidently, they didn’t even let you drink water during games or practice for fear of getting stomach cramps. Instead, they had the guys suck on wet rags—which they all shared. (If you want danger, think about the bacteria on those rags sliding down the flume of your child’s throat).

Luckily, things have changed. My son’s helmet weighs no less than 5 lbs, and the majority of that weight is padding. He wears something called a “girdle” (not a girdle as I know it, which doesn’t stop me from having to suppress a giggle every time he says it), which is essentially a pair of bike pants with padding all over them. Over the girdle, he wears his pants, which are outfitted with another four large pads for knees and thighs. On top he wears a shirt with so much padding it looks like a turtle shell. Over that shirt he wears upper and lower arm pads, and over those he straps his enormous shoulder pads. Attached to his helmet is his mouth guard and slipped into his pants is his “cup” (another giggle).

This dude could walk into Iraq and the bullets would just bounce off of him.

I’d be hard pressed to think of a sport where awareness of risk isn’t on the table. Well, maybe not that hard pressed. My daughter plays college lacrosse with a hard rubber ball whipping at hundreds of miles per hour past her tender unprotected head. But still. At least we parents have a precedent. We can say, if worried, “Hey, how bout we try it this way?” and we won’t get laughed off the field.

* Note to self: speak to daughter’s LAX coach.

4) He’ll learn to trust himself.

If you take a kid and stick him on a field with a bunch of other kids, yell “Hut!” and tell them to smash into each other while either trying to protect or retrieve a football, they’re going to have to develop the ability to think fast and follow their own instincts. That seems to me to be a useful skill. And while most competitive sports provide this experience, football feels the most primal. The stakes are high, the repercussions immediate and visceral—your child is connecting to his inner warrior. That’s cool.

5) You’ll learn to trust him.

I’m the kind of mom, despite my preamble here, who gets stressed when my son walks out the door without a sweatshirt on a 69 degree day. “It might be cold later!” I say, running after him as he gets on the bus, holding out his sweatshirt absurdly as the bus driver shakes his head, shuts the door and rolls away. When he’s on the football field, there’s nothing I can do but hold my breath and believe in him. Watching him “juke” (fake a play), aggressively take down the ball carrier, get hurt, shake it off and move on to the next play gives me, dare I say it? Chills.

The world is a weird and dangerous place, but we’re not doing our kids any favors if we don’t let them live in it. It’s hard, so hard to watch our babies wander out and navigate those perilous seas, but with a little luck and a lot of padding, they’re going to love it—and you might love it too.

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Ed: Sara Crolick


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