Why My Boys Won’t Play Football

Football tackle

Concussions in football are grabbing a lot of headlines these days. Everyone from pee-wee players to the pros are hearing the warning signals regarding the dangers of their sport. As a father of three boys, it’s been very scary to see all the media coverage and to think about my boys wanting to play football one day.

As most of you know, I’m a baseball guy. I played two years of college ball at Yale University before transferring to Vanderbilt. And while I decided to stop playing baseball and focus on academics shortly after arriving on campus, I was with the team long enough to realize just how powerful high-level college athletics were, and more specifically, just how lucrative they were.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that athletics in the Southeastern Conference are a big deal to many of the people who live here. In The South (yes, I’m using that as a proper noun. Trust me…it is its own entity), following your favorite SEC team is like a religion. Hearing “Roll Tide!” from an Alabama fan, “War Eagle!” from an Auburn alum, or “Hotty Toddy!” from an Ole Miss student is like someone saying “God bless you!” when you sneeze. Those sayings are commonplace and, to be honest, expected.

But, athletics in the SEC are more than just a big deal. Specifically, they’re a big business.

In case you aren’t aware of that fact, think about this: In 2011, the SEC pocketed over $163 Million in TV payouts alone. However, for as big as that seems, there’s an even bigger elephant in the room here. Yes, you guessed it, it’s the National Football League.

If you thought $163 million sounded like a lot of money, how does $27 Billion sound? That’s the payout of the extension that the NFL reached with the media outlets who broadcast its games. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for capitalism. I’m a business owner. I believe that if you’re selling something and people are buying it, then you’ve obviously filled a need. And I understand that the NFL is selling a product that people love. Folks tune in, buy season tickets, wear their favorite player’s jersey, and call their local sports talk radio show, all in the name of “fandom.” It’s true the NFL is making a financial killing…but at what cost?

Is it possible that, lost in all the money, lost amidst all the fame, we have lost sight of the fact that football is taking a deadly toll on its players? Players are bigger (which on some level should mean that they’re stronger and therefore more protected), they’re quicker (which on some level should mean that they’re more elusive and therefore bypassing big hits), and their equipment is better, but yet they’re getting hurt at an alarming rate. Concussions are on the rise, yet it seems football teams at all levels are, essentially, turning a blind eye. Only recently, and after years of research and speculation, is the NFL admitting that there might, might, be a connection between concussions and playing football.

I just finished watching the PBS special titled, “League of Denial” about the ongoing struggle to prove that repetitive blows to the head and concussions are directly related to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE as it’s commonly called. CTE is a brain disorder that results in an extremely early onset of dementia-like symptoms. For many players diagnosed with CTE, they have met an early death, both from “natural” causes and from suicides. The number of former players diagnosed with CTE after undergoing an autopsy is more-than alarming.

It was eye opening and heart breaking to watch the two-hour PBS special and I strongly suggest you watch it. I couldn’t help but have a gnawing feeling in my gut when listening to the wife of former Pittsburgh Steelers player Mike Webster talk about her husband, or watch Junior Seau’s son, with tears streaming down his face, talking about who his dad had become in the years leading up to his suicide.

The Seau story hit very close to home for me. I met Junior a few times, as he was a mainstay in the Egoscue family. Everything on the surface said that Junior was a teddybear trapped in a Grizzly bear’s body–a gentle giant. He was one of the kindest guys I’ve ever met, despite the fact that he was one of the hardest hitting players to ever put on pads. But on the inside, Junior was a decaying man.

The NFL recently reached a $765 million settlement with 4,500 former players who filed suit against the League, claiming that the League withheld the long-term impact of concussions from them. While $765 million might sound like a lot of money, that breaks down to just $170,000 per player named in the suit! If you divide that same sum up amongst the nearly 20,000 retired players, that’s a mere $38,250 per player. Peanuts, basically, when you consider the $27 billion TV contract.

What’s more, the agreement claims that only those players with the most severe head injuries will receive payment, and family members of any player who died before 2006 won’t receive anything! Of course, even in the midst of settling, the NFL hasn’t claimed any actual wrong doing. In short, they’re not admitting fault…they’re just shelling out three-quartes of a billion dollars.

Trust me when I say that this isn’t an anti-NFL post. This isn’t an anti-SEC football post. In actuality, it’s quite the opposite. I’m writing this post because I enjoy football. I honestly do.

But just today, the Seattle Seahawks’ Richard Sherman wrote a piece for Sports Illustrated’s “Monday Morning Quarterback” segment saying that if I don’t like seeing players get hurt, then I should stop watching.

Mr. Sherman, with all due respect, I don’t want to stop watching. I just don’t want to watch you get hurt. Honestly, it saddened me to read parts of your piece:

Do I think about the consequences 30 years down the line? No more than I think about the food I’m enjoying today, which could be revealed in 30 years to cause cancer or a heart murmur or something else unpredictable. Those are the things you can’t plan for, and the kind of optimism I have right now is the only way to live. And the next time I get hit in the head and I can’t see straight, if I can, I’ll get back up and pretend like nothing happened.

Obviously, none of us can plan for things we don’t know. I’m sure I’m eating food today, that tomorrow may be found to cause cancer. But the fact is that I don’t know it. When it comes to the dangers of your sport, you know it’s harmful. I’m not sure your children (or future children if you don’t have any) would want you to “get back up and pretend like nothing happened” the next time you’re hit.

I know you’re young and can’t grasp the total ramifications involved with what you’re putting your body through. I certainly know I didn’t have a complete grasp of how my actions in my early-to-mid-20s would impact me in my mid-30s, so I get it. I really do. 

However, you know there are inherent, life-threatening dangers with the game you play, yet you still choose to suit up. Obviously, you’re an adult and are making a conscious decision to put yourself in harm’s way. I just pray that I’m not reading about you one day like I did Junior. 

My hope for you is that you make generation-changing money, in a very short amount of time, and then hang up your cleats to enjoy the rest of your life with your family. Get in, get paid, and get out.

At the end of the day, while I don’t own Titans season tickets or really any Titans’ merchandise to speak of, I still consider myself a football fan. I always DVR the Titans game, and I don’t plan on stopping that. Watching the game is fun for me.

I’m just not going to let my three boys play. And, trust me, I struggle with that. As a dad, I want to see my boys put on pads. I want to see them hit someone. However, I more so want to be able to converse with them with they’re in their 50s and I’m in my 80s. I want them to look at me and recognize me. I want them to be around, physically and mentally, for their own children. In my opinion, the risks just don’t outweigh the rewards.

In the PBS special, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said that if there’s even a 10% decrease in participation in youth football that the sport would, eventually, cease to exist. Well, Mr. Commissioner, my boys will be in that 10%. I don’t want your sport to go away. I just want it to be safer. However, when there’s $27 billion on the table, why worry about safety, right?

QUESTION: What are your thoughts on the concussion debate?