A New York Jets jersey. Orange soccer cones. A pair of Mizuno cleats. A blue Cub Scouts shirt and an orange bandanna. An oversized canary yellow basketball T-shirt. A gi for karate, the iron-on lettering peeling off the back of the jacket. A detailed sketch of a dragon, each scale a small “U” in red ink.
My son Jackson’s closet is an extracurricular graveyard; a cluttered purgatory for the Ghosts of Activities Past. But my wife and I don’t mind it (or at least I don’t). I want my kids to experience a lot of different things, then decide what they want to focus on. Whatever they want to try—basketball, art lessons, Cub Scouts—I’m for it.
That free-spirited, unyielding support was tested—or should I say exposed as fraudulent—a few weeks ago. One evening, we asked Jackson what sport he wanted to play this year. “Um,” he said thoughtfully, “I think I’d like to do football.” He played flag football in the spring, and enjoyed it. His coach encouraged us to sign Jackson up for his team in the fall. Now it’s fall. This would be a no-brainer except for one thing: In this league, they wear pads. That means tackling. That means testing Newton’s third law of motion with children who are still attempting to own their unsteady, doe-like bodies. I’m not okay with that. (A fellow Parenting blogger has her own take on letting her son play football.)
“Okay, we’ll look into it,” I replied. But that was a lie. The truth is since that conversation, I’ve pretended we never spoke about it. I haven’t mentioned football again, and neither has he. I’m hoping he doesn’t remember.
As a society, we’re kinda just figuring out that little kids running into each other at full speed wearing ill-fitting equipment is a really bad idea. In 2005, the number of children who visited emergency rooms for treatment of concussions was more than twice what it had been in 1997, according to a study in the journal Pediatrics. Something tells me the soaring popularity of youth football—more than 3 million kids play youth football every year; between 1991 to 2012, participation in Pop Warner football has more than doubled, from 135,000 to 285,000—has something to do with it.
Before May 2009, signing up an 8-year-old for tackle football was as easy as going through airport security in 1991. Today, there are laws that build in a layer of awareness and protection. Roughly three years ago, Washington became the first state to pass the Zackery Lystedt law, which requires that schools develop educational guidelines for athletes, coaches, and parents, and that parents and athletes sign a consent form acknowledging the dangers of concussions before participation in sports. Today, 39 states have signed Lystedt laws, or laws like it. Curiously, that leaves 11 states that aren’t protecting and educating young athletes or their parents. Hey moms and dads in Michigan, Tennessee, West Virginia, Ohio, Georgia, Nevada, Arkansas, Mississippi, Montana, Wyoming, or South Carolina: It’s time you met Zackery Lystedt, the kid who suffered multiple concussions in one junior high football game and ended up with severe brain trauma. He was unable to move for one year; he had to learn to speak and eat all over again. Zackery is now approaching his 21st birthday. He recently got out of his wheelchair to take a few steps to the dinner table. Those were his first steps since that fatefull football game in 2006.
Here’s the biggest problem: Our youngest athletes are just that: our youngest athletes. They’re not physically developed. Their skulls are not fully formed, which makes violent impact even more dangerous. Issues like memory problems and a reduction in blood flow to the brain can last for months, even years, after a concussion or sports-related brain injury.
Coincidentally, the same week Jackson told us about his interest in playing football, I was invited to a press event hosted by the NFL. The topic: Youth football safety. The fact sheets distributed that day pointed out that bike accidents and playground mishaps are the two leading causes of concussions in children, which is true, but comes off as a deflection. But overall, the NFL deserves kudos for trying to make this violent sport safer: Improving the quality of helmets and equipment; educating athletic trainers and coaches on the sometimes-sly symptoms of concussions; lobbying for those last 11 states to sign Lystedt laws. (To see how far player safety has come, visit nflevolution.com.)
Jackson has not mentioned football again. I’m not surprised. Between girls and birthday parties and spelling and math (his two favorite subjects), he’s enraptured with second grade and all its trimmings. But perhaps one Sunday, when an NFL game is on TV, as well-compensated human missiles running at 18 miles per hour collide with each other, he’ll ask once again about playing football. I’ll tell him he can play in a few years, when he’s stronger and more grown up. Time will tell if I’m guilty of telling my son another lie.