Later, my high school years matched the years of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin. During that time, the Cowboys won three Super Bowls. I can’t remember many of the outfits my best friend wore in high school because neither of us cared much about brands, but I vividly remember her in a jersey with Smith’s #22 on the back walked through the hallways. She wore it often and proudly.
As a kid, I saw nothing wrong with football. I had an older brother who played soccer. I had cousins who played soccer. I had friends who played soccer.
Then I grew up and became a mother of two boys and I made a decision: I didn’t want my sons to play football.
The sport is undeniably violent. It requires crashes and collisions and collapses. Fans cringe as they watch for a reason.
Athletes in most sports are, of course, at risk of injury. In order to compete professionally as an athlete, the body has to be challenged in an extreme way. But football demands more from its players. It requires that they not only push their bodies to extremes, but also slam and ram those bodies into each other.
“You want to feel what NFL players do in an average game? Run full speed into a wall mirror,” wrote The Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins in an article that ran after the Buffalo Bills’ Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest during a game earlier this month. If you’ve been following what happened, then you know that Hamlin was rushed to the hospital in critical condition. They also know that he has since been sacked and made a silent appearance at the team’s last game.
The breathtaking violence of a run-of-the-mill NFL hit
What happened to Hamlin was horrifying and once again put the country to reckon with his love of football. Additionally, it prompted people to consider the human cost of maintaining the sport’s popularity and their own willingness to personally pay that price. The conclusion of many: “My son will not play football.”
If your social media feeds look like mine, then you’ve expressed that sentiment repeatedly over the past few weeks. I’ve seen it in people with babies and I’ve seen it in people who aren’t parents yet. I’ve seen it come from mothers and I’ve seen it come from fathers. I have seen it coming from people of different races, ethnicities and economic classes.
And every time I’ve seen it, I’ve thought about how I said the same thing years ago. I’ve also thought about the problems I see with that statement.
The first problem: It is rooted in a privilege that many do not have.
If you’ve spent time in neglected neighborhoods, and I’ve spent a lot in my personal and professional life, then you’ve surely met kids who, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, are quick to answer “profession” as a football player .” They see it as a way out of their situation, and that’s understandable because too often society doesn’t offer them any other options.
A football player couldn’t find a therapist who understood black urban trauma. So he decided to become one.
That needs to change. Too many young men in poor communities are growing up thinking that their athletic ability is the most important measure of their worth. They need to be shown that they are valued in a way that goes beyond the length of their legs and the bulk of their biceps, because without that they don’t choose football; we choose it for you.
The second problem with this statement: it’s easy to say those words when children are babies, but then they grow up.
When we cradle those tiny minds and still weak necks, it’s natural to want to do whatever it takes to protect our children. I once stood between my young son and an intruder. The man eventually fled, but in those moments before I knew I would do anything to protect my child.
Moms are often the best in the worst of times
My decision to limit my sons’ exposure to football was rooted in the same protective instinct. I figured if they didn’t know much about the sport they would never want to play it. In practice, that meant I didn’t discourage them from watching games with relatives, but I’ve never otherwise streamed a game to our TV. My husband and I also tried to encourage other interests in them. We signed her up for soccer and introduced her to swimming, basketball, tennis and other sports and activities. In our garage we have bats, gloves, goggles, bikes, scooters, skates, bats and balls of all kinds: baseballs, basketballs, soccer balls, tennis balls and a ball with a frog face on it. What we don’t have: a football.
And yet somehow I ended up with an 8-year-old who developed an obsession with football. He loves to watch it and play it and talk about it.
He begs me to find game highlights online so he can study games, and when he has an opportunity to play video games he almost always gravitates towards soccer-themed games. He is known at school as the boy who goes straight to football during recess. I had heard that about him, and then it was confirmed when his classmate approached me at an evening get-together at another student’s house. Without prompting, she told me that she wanted to bring a soccer ball for my son tonight. She thought he would want to play with one because he’s always wanted to play with one.
A boy, a bug and a different kind of love story
My son is fast and agile, and brushes off physical pain with unusual quickness. He’s the boy who falls off his bike, wipes the gravel off his knees, and keeps on riding. I have no idea if he will develop the body structure needed to play soccer, but he has a cousin who plays on his high school team and my son has expressed an interest in doing the same when he gets into high school.
As he told me this, I considered letting him know what I decided a long time ago. Then I realized that he’s not a baby anymore and if I told him he couldn’t, he’d just want to do it more. Instead, I decided to be honest with him so he would understand my fears. We spoke openly about the players’ physical and head injuries and how Hamlin’s story could have ended differently.
As we talked, my son asked many thoughtful questions. They were the kind that made us look up facts and made me think he might reconsider his interest.
Then, a few days ago, I opened his backpack and saw a book he had borrowed from his school’s library. Title: Dallas Cowboys (Inside the NFL).