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The Sport I'm Not Sure I'd Let My Kid Play

Erin Zammett Ruddy

I just got back from a glorious weekend at The University of Tennessee, my alma mater, where, among other shenanigans, we whooped it up at the UT/Florida football game. Watching the players smash the $&*! out of each other got me thinking about my own littler player and whether I'd ever want to see him out there. I'm not so sure I would. 

A bunch of old friends and teammates (I played volleyball at UT freshman year, which is how this New Yorker wound up in Knoxville) gathered for two days of bonding, laughing, dancing, tailgating, cheering, dancing some more and otherwise pretending we were still undergrads and not moms/wives/professionals/nearly pushing 40. It was an absolute blast (and a little surreal) to be back in a place that’s filled with so many memories, a place where I truly became the person I am today. And while I haven’t been a very good Vol fan in recent years, I do love college football. Being in Knoxville on game day brought back all of my Big Orange pride in a swell. ESPN’s College Gameday was broadcast from campus on Saturday, which is a huge deal and caused an insane amount of excitement (and traffic). I got media passes so a few of my friends and I got to hang out on set. It was awesome to see how much goes into that show and how many people are required to make it run so smoothly (and to keep the guys from sweating off their makeup). It was also fun to see what posters get taken away for being inappropriate (my favorite nixed one: “Let me see your TDs”) and how short Kenny Chesney, the celebrity picker, actually is (even smaller than you’d think, but cute). Of course it was amazing when Lee Corso put on the Davy Crockett hat and hugged our mascot Smokey (showing he picked Tennessee to win the game), but, alas it didn’t end in our favor. (I think it had something to do with our QB throwing the ball to people other than his teammates, but I’m no expert.)

We got hooked up with seats on the 45-yard line (thanks, Lady Vols!), a few rows from the field. And here’s where the title of this post comes from: Watching those boys smash into each other hurt a little more than usual because now that I’m a mom, I couldn’t help but picture Alex out there. Many of the friends I was with have kids old enough to play sports and some play football. We talked a bit about our concerns, how we quiet those fears, what the coaches do to protect the kids and whether those of us with younger boys would allow it. There's no denying it: Football can be dangerous. But is it so dangerous that I'd prevent my son from becoming the next Peyton Manning? (Hey, a girl can dream, right?) And is it really that much worse than some of the other sports we gladly let our kids play? And what about life in general? I was an athelete and though I broke an arm (soccer) and an ankle (volleyball) my worst injury (a broken collarbone) came from a bike-riding fall in front of my house. We can't protect our kids from everything but football does seem a little harsher than most activities, no?

I was also at the NFL offices in NYC last week (amazing place!) meeting with a friend who works tirelessly on their health and safety issues. She helps to get youth football leagues motivated to adopt new and safer rules and regulations (check out USA Football’s head’s up tackling rules). Read their latest news and initiatives and watch this safe tackling spot produced by Peter Berg of Friday Night Lights fame ("Clear eyes, Full hearts, Can’t lose!"--I love you, Riggins!). The best thing a football parent can do is to know this stuff inside and out. The NFL also works closely with the CDC on their Heads Up: Concussion in Youth Sports campaign to educate coaches and parents. Bottom line: They know head injuries are a problem and they want to be a part of the solution—namely to keep kids involved in a sport that is so beloved in this country by making that sport safer.

Needless to say, football has been on my mind a lot in the past few days. When I walked in from the airport on Sunday, Alex and my nine-year-old nephew were playing tackle-the-$%!@-out of each other football (even though Alex just turned five he’s a tank so I was actually more concerned for his bean-pole cousin). Very apropos. Later that night, Alex was sporting his Sanchez jersey (he also has a Manning one, since, unlike with baseball, we’re not super loyal to any one team—don’t judge!) and he, Nick and I tossed the ball around. We play football a lot in the backyard. And the kid can throw. And catch. But is that a good enough reason to let him play a sport that I’m sure would make me a nervous wreck to watch? Nick is a huge football fan—college, NFL, fantasy—and I know he wouldn’t hate it if Alex wound up on, say, The University of Michigan’s roster. But even he has no interest in getting Alex onto a football team any time soon. Again, the kid is five so we have time.

Right now the only organized sport Alex plays is soccer, which he loves and is really good at. But of course he thinks he needs to slide tackle and do headers so it’s not exactly a safe option either (the sport with the second most concussions behind football: girl’s soccer). He also loves and plays a lot of baseball in the backyard, which seems awfully civilized compared to these others (though we’ve talked about how I’m not that keen on the time commitment I’d have to make for Alex to play serious baseball, right? Oy). At this point Alex loves playing all sports. But if he begged me to play organized football, would I let him? I'm just not sure right now and I’m curious to hear your thoughts. Would you let your son play tackle? At what age? Why/why not? Let’s discuss. Oh, and Go Vols! Here are some photos from the weekend:


On the Gameday set--this is how close we got to stand!



 The three of us have sons and, so far, none of them plays football. But that doesn't mean we don't love the sport!

The band making the big T for the team to run through. Pretty good seats, right? 

In the stadium! (My old-lady complaint: everyone in our section stood the whole game--ouch!)

 It's been 15 years since these girls were my teammates, but when I saw them again it was like no time has passed at all. GREAT times!