Mom, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be NFL Players

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Yes, I am a major sports fan; yes, I bleed Cardinal and Gold and attended almost every home football game for the USC Trojans since the late 1960s; yes, I spend my weekends in the fall watching college football on Saturday and professional football on Sunday.  But, would I let my son play football?  No!  And, I urge all sensible parents to follow my lead.  Goodness knows, there’s plenty of information out there to support my position.

Credit Image: © James Borchuck/Tampa Bay Times/ZUMAPRESS.com

Trojan Nation was rocked to its core this past summer when news broke of the suicide of Junior Seau, the defensive linebacker who played most of his career for his hometown team, the San Diego Chargers (and, prior to that, was one of the finest Trojans ever to take the field).  He committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest.  Only two weeks before, Seau had been to the annual USC Spring football game and was filmed happily singing a song with his ukulele; in other words, he was the Junior Seau that Trojans had come to know and love – a tall, big, feisty football player with a strong allegiance to his alma mater –so his suicide came as a major shock to everyone, including his family. 

Seau’s suicide came on the heels of a similar suicide by Dave Duerson, who played safety for the Chicago Bears, New York Giants and Arizona Cardinals.  Duerson not only committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest, same as Seau, but he left a note requesting that his brain be donated to the NFL’s Brain Bank.

The news of these two larger-than-life former players shakes up the NFL more than ever.  After all, we’re coming off major penalties (which have just been overturned) heaped onto four defensive players for the New Orleans Saints (and a year-long ban to Saints coach Sean Payton) who were accused of a “bounty” program to hurt quarterbacks and other opponents; a year-long absence of Super Bowl quarterback Peyton Manning due to a significant neck injury (possibly caused by a “pay-to-injure” scheme?); a lawsuit against the NFL by more than 3,000 current and former pro football players who are accusing the league of deliberately hiding information about the long-term effects of repeated hits to the head.

And, the research into those repeated hits to the head is not promising.  Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy has analyzed brain tissue of deceased athletes and identified a disorder called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) which is linked to the concussions athletes get while playing. 

In addition, researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which is currently studying more than 3,400 retired NFL players, finds that repeat concussions have resulted in higher-than-average risks of dying from Alzheimer’s or Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) and are four times higher than those deaths in the general American population.  NIOSH researchers also report that “speed positions” – wide receiver, running back, quarterback – are most vulnerable to death by Alzheimer’s or ALS because they are the players most likely involved in “high-speed collisions.” 

These findings are not lost on the NFL.  The league has instituted new regulations against aiming at the head, helmet-to-helmet hits and late hits; and the league continues to work hard to protect the quarterback.  In addition, players who have suffered a concussion must pass a series of tests and be cleared by a doctor before gaining approval to get back onto the field. 

In fact, lead researcher of the NIOSH study, Everett J. Lehman, says, “The medical management is much better now.  They’re not just ‘Shaking it off’ and getting back on the field anymore.”  In addition, players will begin wearing more padding on their hips, knees and thighs beginning in 2013, which should help when extremities hit the helmet.  And, the NFL just bestowed a $100,000 grant on UB Sports Medicine Center and charged them with developing a method for identifying a player’s fitness to return to the field after suffering a concussion.

These are all good, positive steps but are they enough to keep YOUR son from being concussed, from aging into Alzheimer’s or ALS or from dying prematurely?  I don’t think so. 

Look at this evidence: this past weekend, Tulane University safety Devon Walker suffered a broken spine in a head-to-head collision.  After Seau’s death, former USC player and current Pittsburgh Steeler safety Troy Polamalu estimated that most NFL players suffer between 50 and 100 concussions per season.  And, former Buffalo Bills receiver Lou Piccone has said, "I don't believe you play football and you're not concussed. If you're not concussed, you're probably not playing. You're on the bench – that's just the way it is, because it is a contact sport."

On top of that, there are now over 500 NFL players who weigh more than 300 pounds when, in 1970, there was one; in 1980, there were three and in 1990, there were less than 100.  With this kind of weight behind the hits, how can anyone who doesn’t weigh 300 pounds live to tell the tale?

While football may be vastly different in the next decade – maybe they’ll be back to flag football? – there are hints that players are becoming cognizant of the risks of their sport.  Offensive lineman Jacob Bell played eight years in the NFL but he opted to retire at the end of last season because he didn’t want to be just another statistic.  He said, “We’re now seeing that there is clear-cut proof that the trauma incurred during football leads to problems later in life.” 

But, still, the allure of playing professional football can’t be denied.  While the average salary of the NFL player is $1 million (this includes the highest paid players; the minimum wage for a rookie is a much-less significant $325,000), the average length of time in the league is 3.3 years.  That’s right.  Most players play in the league for less than four years before they either retire or are shunted out of the league for one reason or another, including injury.

These statistics don’t paint a very positive picture, do they?  While the reward for making it to the pros is a good salary, travel and fame, do those things really trump the most important element of all: a long and healthy life?  Not to me.  While I love football, I never preached it to my son, nor did I push my views onto him.  He made his own choice about which sport he wanted to play but, I admit to breathing a major sigh of relief when he selected indoor volleyball as opposed to football.  Yes, volleyball was hard on his knees and ankles but at least his head was spared, meaning he should lead one of those long and healthy lives.  And, as a parent, isn’t it your job to keep your children safe?

What do you think, Moms?  Knowing what we now know about football and repeated hits to the head, will you still let your son play football?

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