To Hit or Not Be Hit: A Commentary on Football

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With the safety of football being increasingly questioned, it is important for parents to think about what effects playing will have on their children. It is difficult to say no to such a cultural phenomenon, but it is important that we do so.

My beloved son is 10 years old and he absolutely loves football. He and my husband participate in several Fantasy Football leagues, they watch football games together every Sunday during season and he loves to play. Over the last several years, he’s been playing flag football. This I enjoy. I even played intramural flag football myself in college. It’s fun, good exercise, a nice display of teamwork, everyone can play and, best of all, no one gets hurt. If it were only about flag football, I wouldn’t be writing this. But it isn’t. There are so many things wrong with not only professional football, but football at increasingly younger ages as well.

I’ll start with professional football. I hate it. In 1905, a University of Chicago professor called football a “boy-killing, man-mutilating, money-making, education-prostituting, gladiatorial sport.” Yes, exactly. But now it’s even worse. For the moment, I’ll forego my many objections to the negative climate impact (what kind of a carbon footprint does each professional game have?), the blow to communities (do our tax dollars really subsidize the trappings of a game?), the crass consumerism and the unimaginably large sums of money that fund a sport instead of the needy. Instead, I’ll focus on the game itself. If you strip football down to its bare essentials, what you have is a bunch of grown men hitting each other for the sake of a ball. Like boxing, it’s the glorification of violence but on a much grander scale. This is not something I want my son thinking is a good thing.

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Social psychological research has shown repeatedly that watching violence, hearing about it, or even being in the same room with an object used specifically for violence (like a gun) increases the chances that a person will be violent themselves. Thus, is it any wonder that football players exhibit startlingly high rates of violent behaviors off the field? They frequently are accused of things like rape, domestic violence, assault, dog fighting, sexual harassment and sometimes even murder. An astute observer might note that the majority of these violent behaviors are directed toward those who have less power in our society. You know, like women and, most especially, romantic partners. [Although I wrote this prior to Jovan Belcher’s murder of his partner, Kasandra Perkins, and his subsequent suicide, the event only serves, sadly, to make my point.] As a feminist mother, I work so hard at getting my son to see the gender disparities in society and to regard women as equal partners in the world. I don’t really want to tell him what rape is (how I wish I never had to!) but what else can I tell him about why I want Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback of the Steelers and twice accused of rape, to lose whenever he plays? And I am left to explain how, even though justice is supposedly blind, people who have money and a marketable commodity (their athletic talent) can get away with doing things that are wrong, especially if these things are done to women.

Because that’s another take-away lesson from professional football: women don’t really count. Sure we’re allowed to look admiringly at football players and cheer them on to victory, but football is a man’s sport. It is owned by men, directed by men, played by men and even commentated upon by men (do not even get me started on the inane commentary and the ridiculously banal post-game interviews). Yes, there are female cheerleaders but they are paid an embarrassingly small wage and do not get to participate in most of the financial perks of the players. And let’s not pretend that they are there for anything other than objects for men to look at. Plus, their skimpy outfits and the disrespectful way men talk about them become yet more things I have to explain to my son. Now there are women reporters who get to interview the players, but watching Tom Brady (quarterback of the Patriots) stride arrogantly off the field as the female reporter runs to keep up with him doesn’t seem like much of a victory. This attitude of men as superior and football as god filters on down to younger players. I’ve seen it in college and high school athletic programs and even the youth football leagues. Women and girls are on the sidelines and football programs can do no wrong.

Even with all of this, the violence off the field pales in comparison to what happens on the field. At the end of the day, you’ve got a bunch of overly muscled men hitting each other with as much force as possible and it takes its toll. In addition to the general bodily injuries, they’re now finding (although this could not truly be a surprise) that football is affecting the brain as well. Researchers recently linked football-related concussions with higher rates of depression, mental decline and Alzheimer’s disease. Moreover, chronic traumatic encephalopathy — a disease caused only by head trauma, that typically results in progressive cognitive decline — has been found in the brain tissue of many deceased players, several of whom committed suicide because one of the symptoms of this is crushing depression. If that’s not bad enough, the truly scary thing is that experts believe it’s caused not just by concussions, but also by subconcussive brain trauma. In football parlance, this means little hits. The kind of hits my son would be getting if he decided to play tackle.

I’ve been lucky that my son has been content to play just flag football and not ‘advance’ to tackle. There are teams of Pee Wee football, especially here in football-obsessed Texas, where kids as young as 5 years old can play tackle, and the pressure to play ‘real’ football gets stronger the older you get. My son was starting to feel that pressure when he was told that he could no longer play for his old coach and team unless he planned on playing tackle. He wanted to do it and my husband was willing to let him (although he understands the risks, he also played when he was young), so I was the only hold-out. Other parents and even some of the coaches were trying to convince me that he really should play tackle. It was uncomfortable for me to hold the line, to keep saying no and speaking out against the evils of tackle football and football culture in general (no one really wants to hear it). But I did it because my son’s mental and physical health may depend on my perseverance. Luckily, he started playing baseball last year and has decided, for the moment, that football is not his sport. I hope that will remain the case, but I am ready to keep saying no to tackle football if he should change his mind. Maybe my refusal to give in will teach him what true strength — not just what he sees on the field — looks like. If that happens, both he and I will have won.

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