One of the biggest reasons I could never be a big-time sports radio guy is that I actually change my mind from time to time.
The famous sports radio hosts have major egos, and they take a hard stance on every subject. Then they argue that point for hours because there is no gray in the sports radio world.
Everything is black and white.
Last week I wrote about football and the unfair public image it seems to have. Seeing someone compare young boys playing youth football to young boys working in a coal mine spurred the column, which ran with the headline “What football has is a serious PR problem.”
Once that column hit the internet, it got some notice from some advocates working to fight head injuries in football and other sports. They hit me with some facts that, once again, made me rethink letting my son play tackle football at such a young age.
Now, these are facts that I knew from watching Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel and from doing my own research on the subject.
However, they are some facts that I kind of forgot about when I was rationalizing letting my soon-to-be 10-year-old son play tackle football.
My son was heartbroken at even the suggestion of us not letting him play football because he loves the sport so much.
When he’s not playing football outside, he’s playing Madden on his Xbox or telling me about him playing Madden on his Xbox. About this time last year he set his goal in life to be a Hall of Fame running back. He has, however, since amended that goal to being a Hall of Fame pitcher.
I am not reversing course on my opinion from last week. But I am nervous about my child and others who play contact sports.
We should all be aware of certain truths before we decide to let our children play.
I started rethinking my column when I saw Kent Johnson retweet the column with the words “What youth football has is a science problem. (One) season alters brain white matter, without concussion.”
Here’s one fact that was brought to my attention that, frankly, scares the heck out of me: Among NFL alumni, an early start in youth football is a better predictor of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) than a long NFL career.
Also, brains of a person under the age of 14 are especially susceptible to injury due to incomplete myelination of neural circuits.
I won’t pretend to know what the means, but it sounds very bad.
After I was hit pretty hard on Twitter, I reached out to Christine Barry. Christine has dedicated a lot of her life to advocating for safety after her son Cullan committed suicide after suffering a concussion while playing hockey.
I trust her opinion on the matter more than most.
That Barry’s youngest son plays hockey is one of the deciding factors for me letting my boy play football. What I didn’t realize was that her son didn’t play in a league that allowed checking until he was 14.
“So there are several things to consider,” Barry told me. “Little Guy has adopted a tackle position in which the kids are taught to keep heads up and not down, trying to prevent head to head collisions. I am unaware of any scientific proof this has actually decreased concussions and I worry about watching it about their necks.”
Now, I don’t want to be one to criticize youth football league. I wish they were around when I was that age.
I want football to stay the same great sport it always was.
You know that song by Toby Keith, “I wish I didn’t know?”
While Toby, one of my guilty pleasures, took a break from wrapping himself in a flag he doesn’t truly understand to record a song about a guy who wishes he still didn’t know his girl was cheating on him.
That’s how I feel about football.
I wish I could take a time machine to 1985 to watch Jim McMahon and the Chicago Bears win the Super Bowl again. Following my team in those days is probably the highlight of my childhood.
Now, the NFL treats the quarterbacks like they are made of glass, and you can’t even look at the receivers cross eyed without picking up a penalty. Just about ever hit by an 85 Bear would now draw a suspension.
Sadly, McMahon, one of my childhood heroes, is the poster boy for what can go wrong after a playing football. He has been suffering with the effects of head and neck injuries for years. At 58, McMahon says he walks into a room and then wonders why he went there.
I would also like to go back to the not-so-distant Saturday morning when I watched my son push aside the center and make a highlight-reel quarterback sack.
That was so much fun seeing both boys jump up, uninjured, as my son elated celebrate his sack. I don’t want those days to every go away, and I’d never advocate that.
But maybe they really weren’t uninjured. What if that hit was one hit toward a brain injury later in life?
The romantic in me hopes youth football is around long enough for my children to experience the same joy of watching their kids play, but that is doubtful.
Pop Warner Youth Football is currently the subject of a class-action lawsuit that might someday put an end to tackle football for such young children.
The Concussion Legacy Foundation is lobbying for the tackling age of football to be pushed up to the junior high level and have younger kids play flag football.
If that happens, it will be a sad day. If it doesn’t happen, though, it could be worse.
I asked Barry if she would let her child play football in the fourth grade.
“So my simple answer to your question is knowing what I know now, I would not let my grade school age son or daughter play any high-contact, high-collision sport,” she said. “I would wait until junior high age to let them tackle or check, or be slammed onto a matt, etc. I would make sure they are armed with concussion education, prepared to report and that their coaches respect the health of their brains.”
Maybe we really do need to move tackle football back to junior high age.
Would it help make football even better if more kids learned ball skills by playing more seasons of flag football? Or, do the benefits of tackle football outweigh the risks of playing at a young age?
The answer to the second question is probably not, but I can’t answer that for everybody.
And that’s why I’ll never be on ESPN Radio.
— Bill Foley, who now needs a good helmet-to-helmet hit to get Toby Keith out of his head, writes a column that appears Tuesday on ButteSports.com. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74