Mothers, don't let sons grow up to be footballers

Posted: June 23, 2007

When I told my mom I wanted to play high school football, she refused to sign the permission form, threatening, "If you got hurt, I'd break both your legs."

Mom's peculiar logic aside, these days I see her point: Why do parents allow their kids to play football?

It's got the highest injury rate of all high school sports - 4.36 per 1,000 practices and games (also called athletic exposures), according to the Centers for Disease Control. (The overall injury rate for all sports combined is 2.44 per 1,000 athletic exposures.)

It's pervaded by a macho culture that encourages kids to play hurt, increasing the risk of greater injury.

It's brutal to the end, its ravages and agonies festering through manhood into old age.

Read the news: A recent study of 2,500 retired NFL players by the University of North Carolina Center for the Study of Retired Athletes shows that, among guys with three or more concussions during their playing days, three times as many have suffered clinical depression as among those who had no concussions.

Former Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters - who once said he lost count of the concussions he suffered after number 15 - shot himself last November.

Doctors found deterioration in Waters' brain comparable to an Alzheimer's patient about 90 years old. Waters was 44. Concussions depressed and, indirectly, killed him, doctors concluded.

New information on brain injuries shows that even a "small" concussion, in which a player's bell is rung for a moment, can be significant, and that cumulative concussions add to brain injuries that may never heal.

Beyond that, children especially may not know when they've suffered a concussion, doctors say.

All this, by the way, doesn't take into account what football can do to knees, hips, shoulders and backs, especially later in life.

"When parents ask, 'Should my child play football?' " says Angela Smith, a pediatric sports medicine doctor at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, "I say it's not a sport I recommend. The risk way outweighs the benefit."

Football, says Smith, past president of the American College of Sports Medicine, is even more dangerous than hockey, which I'd believed was the worst thing a kid could do to his body, short of binge drinking, then driving.

"Hockey injuries are mostly bones, teeth, cuts," Smith says. "The catastrophic injury rate [spinal cord, brain] is way lower than football."

After my mom forbade me to join the school team, I just went out and played tackle in the neighborhood - without a helmet or pads.

That's because I was a jerk. Many kids are. And that's Smith's point.

"A child doesn't have the background or judgment to assess the risks of football," she says. "A parent does."

With August school football practices coming up, I'm reminded of a scene I witnessed during a scrimmage in a South Jersey park last summer.

A 9- or 10-year-old defender was running after a kid with the ball. The defender dived at the runner's heels and was kicked in the head.

The defender fell on the ground, immobile. The coach ran over to him and, rather than check him out, immediately picked him up and told him to get back on the line.

The little boy cried.

Does this game make sense to you?


Contact staff writer Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.

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