In a culture dominated by sports, where players are superheroes and coaches, the gods, football reins the supreme competition at every level of the game. For many people, “football is second only to Jesus,” said LaShaun Williams of Atlanta, GA. “A Bama fan might tell you it comes first.”
The mother of three, two boys and a girl, grew up playing sports. She even played softball at the collegiate level, but “not all sports are created equally,” and for that reason, she is putting her foot down with football. “At least for now.”
When Williams was 14, she was hit in the face by the ball while sliding into third base, resulting in two black eyes.
“Compared to getting hit so hard you can't feel your legs or dizzily walking to the sidelines after yet another blow to the head, such injuries are minor,” she said.
Those injuries have become common among football players of all levels and can have long-lasting, life-altering and disastrous effects on the body.
The culture can be extremely intense. Williams said that adults involved in Pop Warner programs (the nation’s largest and oldest youth football organization) —both parents and coaches — impose their wills and push their children “as if they're preparing for war. It's the perfect recipe for, well, insanity,” she said.
But it’s the fervor and camaraderie of the sport that drives many parents to allow their children to participate.
“I think kids having a passion for something is so important,” said Elizabeth Lord, whose 7th-grade son Zach plays football. “Kids need an outlet, and this gives them an outlet in a controlled way.”
“I really love watching him play, but to say mama-bear emotions kick in is an understatement,” Lord added. “It's an amazing high when your child makes a great play, but it's a scary low when they take a hit and don't get right back up. Those three extra seconds can feel like 10 minutes, and as a parent, you have to remember to breathe.”
While she doesn’t discount the concerns about the physical nature of the sport, she believes that the positives outweigh the negatives.
“As parents, we want to protect our child in every way possible,” Lord said, “but if it's something they want, you just have to prepare them the best you can by ensuring good equipment, great coaches, practices for learning, and then let them go after it.”
John Mayer is a Chicago-based clinical psychologist who specializes in teens and families. He is also the president of the International Sports Professionals Association who wrote the book, “Value-Based Coaching: Principles and Practices,” which examined coaching culture, particularly in American youth football.
While football itself is indeed a competitive and aggressive sport, it has become a violent one because of coaching, he argues. “Bad coaching creates spearing, violence, headhunting, illegal hits,” said Mayer.
“Sadly, many of our young people are being lead in this sport by people who are inappropriate, poorly trained and bad role models,” said Mayer, who noted that there should be some sort of certification before a person can become a coach of any level.
Still, football thrives. Why?
Grit and resiliency are extremely important for anyone in life, and youth sports can help foster this, Hilary Friedman, professor in the department of American Studies at Brown University and author of the book, “Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture.”
Still, she said, she has decided not to expose her two young boys to football, saying that other sports like soccer foster the same positive benefits of competition.
“When [the positive benefit] is mixed up in physical and verbal assault on the part of adults like coaches and other parents, that is not acceptable. In the most competitive leagues, . . . the negative impacts outweigh the considerable positives,” said Friedman.
As the intensity has increased, so have the injuries. Studies have contributed to the growing concern over head injuries, particularly concussions, in football and other contact sports. A concussion is caused when the brain is shaken so hard that it hits the inside of the skull, resulting in brain trauma.
For reasons that remain unclear to experts, having one concussion makes a person more prone to further concussions, experts have found. According to a study published in Neurosurgery in 2011, American football players who sustained three or more concussions were significantly more likely to develop depression and had were five times more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease.
And according to statistics from the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, about 47 percent of high school football players sustain at least one concussion each season. And 35 percent of those who reportedly suffered from a concussion actually sustained two or more in the same season.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly 2 million brain injuries are suffered by teenage players every year, and during the last decade, emergency department visits for sports- and recreation-related traumatic brain injuries, including concussions, among children and adolescents increased by 60 percent. Pop Warner and the NFL have responded to these statistics by using stronger, safer equipment, along with implementing tighter playing rules and regulations.
Eamon McNab, 32 of Novato, Calif., played football from Pop Warner to the collegiate level. He said the values learned in football are incomparable.
“Playing football taught me to be a better person,” he said. “I became outgoing, spoke up for myself, learned how to work with others, and became a leader. Boys learn responsibility, how to push themselves, how to rely on others, how to take criticism, how to lead, and how to follow. Plus, it's great exercise.”
Nevertheless, the physical toll it took makes his football past more difficult to grapple with. A hard hitter, McNab was taught by coaches to lead with his facemask.
“I was taught that if you hit with your face, your neck could bend back to absorb the blast. Seemed logical at the time,” he said. While he was never diagnosed with a concussion, the father-of-one said he regularly saw stars during practice and games.
McNab has a young daughter, but if he had a son, the former player said he wouldn’t write off the sport completely. “I’d be pragmatic about the whole thing,” he said when thinking about how he’d make the decision.
But he admits, “In hindsight, I probably am not as quick or as smart as I could have been. Plus, as I get older, the effects of the head trauma can begin to show — or they may not. That's what's really scary.”