Stick to Fantasy, Kid

4 May

Junior Seau died Wednesday in an apparent suicide. A legendary member of the San Diego Chargers (along with less legendary stints with the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots) and surefire Hall-of-Famer, Seau joins a growing list of NFL players who’ve died too young.

As someone who follows the NFL pretty devotedly, in matters both on the field and off, I’m guessing it won’t be long before someone links Seau’s suicide to the concussions and head trauma he suffered throughout his hall of fame career (in fact, it’s already happened).

Is there any parent left that is going to let their kid play football? Outside of Texas, I mean.

I’d say something about the potential of such a high profile player becoming a tipping point for this increasingly glaring issue, but I’m not sure he will be.

You hear countless stories of football players from our parents’ generation who’ve descended into mental illness and died in their 50s or earlier. You hear an increasing number of stories about guys we grew up watching, like Jim McMahon, who has said that he starts forgetting the interviews he’s giving almost WHILE HE’S GIVING THEM. You hear these stories and you keep watching the game every Sunday. You keep rooting for your team.

Just last night I heard Chuck Klosterman say he thinks we need to see an articulate, beloved player deteriorate in front of our eyes (the example he used was Super Bowl MVP and multiple-concussion-sufferer-turned-analyst Troy Aikman) before the public’s appetite for the game will finally be overwhelmed by the carnage being left in its wake. But I’ve already seen enough to know the closest my son is going to get to playing football is playing futbol.

The kind of trauma that’s coming back to haunt these players isn’t the kind that results from one hit. It’s from the steady accumulation of football collisions, over a career spent playing the game, usually from high school or before into their late twenties, early thirties. But you don’t have to spend a lifetime playing football to worry about the damage you may have done to yourself.

From High school athletes who have suffered as few as two concussions may already have the signs of “post-concussion syndrome,” according to a study published in the journal Neurosurgery in January.

I didn’t play organized football (I was a puny high schooler; my voice didn’t change until last year. Besides, real men join the marching band), so maybe it’s easy for me to act like withholding the sport from my son is no big deal. But as someone who grew up dreaming of playing wide receiver in the same uniform as the Marks brothers, it won’t be easy to bond with my son over a love of the Dolphins while simultaneously explaining to him that he can never play football himself.

And yet that doesn’t matter. As a parent, it’s never been more obvious that the risks associated the game are outweighing the rewards, and I’m not willing to let my son endanger himself by playing. Speaking with other parents, I know I’m not alone.

Which begs the question: if a generation of kids grows up protected from football, can we expect the NFL’s dominance of the sporting landscape to continue? Can we be sure that the sport will even exist in thirty years? I’m starting to think that it won’t be long before – despite the NFL Commissioner’s transparent attempts to enforce rules meant to promote safety (Bountygate, neutering kickoffs, gradually making the QB’s life so easy that Marino would triple his numbers if he played today dammit!, etc.) – the NFL will be irrevocably changed, so much so that the game may become unrecognizable.

That would be sad, especially if it happens before Ryan Tannehill brings the Fins another championship. But it’s not anywhere near as sad as what has happened to Junior Seau and countless others, who’ve sacrificed their well-being in ways both big and small to playing a sport whose terrible consequences are mounting every year.

So no matter what state the game is in by the time he’s old enough to play, the closest my son will get to football is the stands.


One Response to “Stick to Fantasy, Kid”

  1. K May 12, 2012 at 4:59 pm #

    Thank you for letting me know that I’m not the only one who feels this way! I know several people (former high school football players, doctors, etc) who won’t let their sons play football. I wish I never had because now it’s hard to make him stop. His dad (my ex-husband) pushes the football and I so want him to stop before he gets (if he hasn’t already) lifetime health issues from it. I let him sign up for 5th grade football thinking he would hate it and quit. I was o-so-wrong! Dad even joined up as a coach for the team. Now my poor son is caught between Dad’s pro-football hype and Mom’s anti-football injury anxiety. I’ve made a deal with my son that he is not to play football in high school and he is allowed to play until that time. So this fall will be (God willing) his last season of tackle football (8th grade). My son enjoys playing, but is also listening as I put all SI articles, ESPN interviews, etc in front of him regarding ex-NFL players’ injuries/lawsuits, research on head trauma, etc. I keep telling him that his health for the rest of his life isn’t worth the couple years of “glory days” he would get now. His dad reacts extremely poorly when my son tells him that he doesn’t plan to play in high school. He rants, asks why, and blames me. As a physical therapist and athletic trainer, you would think he would understand the risks and be more concerned about his son’s health than supporting his favorite sport and reliving his high school glory days. I just pray that my son makes it through his last year so football and never suffers any ill effects from it. The football mentality is absolutely INSANE!!

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