Published August 23, 2012
Break out the face paint. Study up for those fantasy league drafts. Make sure the big-screen television and comfy recliner are in the perfect working order.
Yes, we're ready for some football!
Just as long as it's not our children playing that barbaric game.
On any given day, a new report seems to emerge about some ex-player who no longer knows what planet he's on because of all the blows he took on the gridiron. Most of us are familiar with someone who's walking proof — if they can still walk — of the damage caused by those Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays: the 40-year-old with the crippled knees of someone twice his age; the middle-aged guy who can no longer stand up straight because he spent too much time using his body as a battering ram.
We all know that football is bad for the body, which brings up a troubling dilemma for moms and dads:
Should they let their kids play?
This debate should be playing out in kitchens and bedrooms all across this land. Maybe there should put a prominent label on every helmet, sort of like they have cigarettes cartons.
"Warning: Playing football is dangerous to your health."
Bob Cook, who blogs on youth sports, faced that issue with his own son. Admittedly, he didn't want his child to play. In fact, he talked the kid out of joining his high school team as a sophomore. But his son kept pressing, and Cook finally relented. A few weeks ago, he dropped off his 15-year-old — who weighs all of 132 pounds — for his first practice.
"I can't say my wife and I are thrilled that he's doing this," Cook wrote, "but we're not stopping him, either. It's one of those many make-or-break ... parenting moments in which you weigh your desires against your child's, and it's one of those moments in which you're never 100 percent sure whether you've made the right decision."
There are those who surely see the game as a necessary rite of passage for males, instilling the values of teamwork and effort, camaraderie and desire, toughness and resiliency. Sure, it's dangerous, but so is hockey, and skateboarding, and skiing.
But football stands apart from most other team sports (boxing and mixed martial arts are obviously in a totally different class), in that the very purpose of the game involves inflicting pain on the other guy. When an opponent has the ball, your job is tackle him, take him to the ground, the harder the better. Intimidation and bravado are part of the package. If you can make him flinch next time, you have the upper hand.
At least things have improved significantly, especially when it comes to head injuries.
There's much more awareness at the pro and college levels, no doubt pushed along by myriad lawsuits filed by former players who believe the NFL was aware of the terrible toll but never informed them. That caution has trickled down to the high schools, the middle schools, even to the Pop Warner youth leagues, which just this summer instituted new rules that severely restrict the number of contact practices and require that players start out no more than 3 yards apart when they are hitting each other.
"The drills we grew up with, all those high-speed, head-on collisions, are not allowed the Pop Warner level anymore," said Dr. David Marshall, director of sports medicine at Children's Heathcare of Atlanta.
He's relieved about that. Still, there's always a significant increase in the number of concussions around this time of year. One of his colleagues treated six of them in a single day this week. After all, it's football season.
"The object of the game is to hit the other guy as hard as you can," Marshall said. "You're not just trying to knock him down. You want to knock the ball loose."
The doctor used to think every boy should play at least one season of football. They needed to be toughened up a bit, learn what it's like to get knocked down and have to get back up again. His own son played, for two seasons in fact, beginning when he was 8 years old. He only quit because he didn't enjoy playing on the line.
Now, Marshall looks at things differently. While most of the focus is on concussions, younger kids don't really run fast enough to cause the sort of devastating brain injuries one sees at the higher levels. But what about all the non-concussive blows? What damage is being done there?
"Maybe they don't have outward signs of a concussions, but does it does matter when you take hundreds and thousands of these during a football career?" Marshall said. "The fact is, we just don't know. But that's a questions a lot of parents are asking themselves this summer when they're trying decide should they sign their kid up to play football.
At the turn of the 20th century, President Teddy Roosevelt — no shrinking violent, to be sure — was so appalled by the brutality of the game that he threatened to outlaw it by executive order. There's no danger of that happening now.
Despite all the reports of maimed bodies and brains turned to mush, the sport has never been more popular with its fans. Television ratings are through the roof. Stadiums are filled every weekend. Football is more than just a game, it's a part of who we are, a cultural phenomenon that has transformed events such as the Super Bowl into national holidays.
What that says about us is rather troubling.
"As fans, we like it, but it's sort of in the same way the Romans liked watching gladiators," said Jason Chartraw, a former sportswriter and father of an 18-month-old son. "They were like, 'Hey, it's fun to watch, but don't put me in the ring with the lion.'"
At the very least, parents should give serious thought to whether they want their kids getting in the modern-day ring. Chartraw doubts that he would let his son play, certainly not the way things are now.
Then there's Marshall, who is not anti-football by any means, and makes sure to point out that the risk of serious injury is still rather small. But, when it comes to his own son, now 13, he's not sure he would make the same decision today that he did five years ago.
"I would probably highly discourage him from playing football," the doctor said, "and I may just forbid it."
Thankfully, my 13-year-old son has not asked to play.
He's certainly got the size for it, and he's occasionally been approached at his middle school by teachers or fellow students, wondering if he'd like to try out for the football team. So far, he's shown little interest.
But, if he ever does come to his parents with a request to suit up, we know what the answer will be.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963