Football can be dangerous, and attention has focused in recent years on the head injuries that can result from playing the contact sport. Much of the discussion revolves around the risks voluntarily assumed by the paid adult professionals of the National Football League, but some politicians say the danger is excessive for young players—so excessive that families should not even be allowed to decide for themselves whether the game is worthwhile. New York Assemblyman Michael Benedetto wants to flat-out make it illegal for anybody under the age of 14 to play tackle football. In a world that will never be risk-free, and where all choices involve trade-offs, it's a hell of a presumption that would substitute the preferences of politicians for those of children and parents.
Benedetto started riding this particular hobbyhorse at least four years ago, when he said:
I am a big sports fan, and I strongly support sports related programs for our youth. However, I believe that we must set firm guidelines to deal with concussions. Oftentimes the athletes' are not aware of the seriousness of their injuries, are pressured to return to the field, or feel an obligation to the team to re-enter the game thus further aggravating an already serious medical condition.
At that time, Benedetto just wanted to track injuries and "establish standards for school districts regarding concussions." Last year, though, he introduced his outright ban, which he's pushing hard now amidst the heavy pre-Superbowl media focus on football. According to CBS New York:
Benedetto said he believes the measure could potentially prevent young kids from getting concussions, which run the risk of causing brain damage.
"Every time they're hit, or every time they fall to the ground in a tackle, the brain will spin around in the head, causing damage," Benedetto said.
Well, who could object to protecting The Children™?
But football is hardly the only activity that poses physical risks. As it so happens, my wife, Wendy, and I discussed the risks of football with our son, Tony, during a lull in the televised football games yesterday, when he voiced interest in playing. Wendy, a pediatrician, has treated more than a few juvenile concussions in her career. We told him that football is dangerous, and that he should think about it thoroughly and be really sure he wants to play before taking the risk. Then we can discuss it.
But we did not say no. We've already signed off on Tony engaging in a contact sport.
Our eight-year-old son is a green belt in Tae Kwon Do. This past Wednesday, he practiced with nunchucks (yes, I have seen him clock himself in the head), before tumbling class, and then an extended session of sparring with six separate opponents. There were no serious injuries this time, but I've seen him take a punch to the head, fall, get kicked in the ribs, shake it off, and dive back in.
Yeah, he wears a helmet and a full array of body armor, but so do linebackers.
Our hesitation about football strikes even me as a bit arbitrary.
Not every parent would agree with our decision to let Tony learn a martial art and take the risks that come with it, but it's a decision with which we're comfortable. We think the dangers are worth the self confidence, discipline, and physical fitness he's gained along the way. Other parents likely feel the same about football.
Everybody has their own comfort level when it comes to balancing risks and benefits—and a risk-free existence isn't in the cards.
Hell, my worst high school injury came while riding my bicycle to school in the morning. Somebody opened a car door at the wrong moment. Ouch. I don't really remember the next few minutes. Damn that morning commute
Football is dangerous. Maybe it's too dangerous—for some people. But it's worth the risk for others. We all have to make choices for ourselves, and our families. The fact that some politicians wouldn't make the same choices as other people isn't surprising. Nor does it give them any special rights over the rest of us.
Benedetto represents the Bronx, by the way. My father was raised in Throgs Neck and I spent a lot of time there as a kid. To be honest, I don't remember contact sports being a prerequisite for a head injury in that piece of the Empire State.