Later, my high school years aligned with the Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin years. During that time, the Cowboys won three Super Bowls. I can’t remember many of the outfits my best friend in high school wore, because neither of us cared much about brands, but I vividly recall her walking through the halls in a jersey with Smith’s No. 22 is the back. She sported it often and proudly.
As a child, I saw nothing wrong with football. I had an older brother who played football. I had cousins who played football. I had friends who played football.
Then I grew up and became a mother to two boys, and I made a decision: I didn’t want my sons to play football.
The sport is undeniably violent. It requires crashing and colliding and collapsing. Fans wince as they watch for a reason.
Athletes in most sports, of course, risk getting injured. To compete professionally as an athlete requires pushing the body in extreme ways. But football requires even more from its players. It requires them to not only push their bodies to extremes, but also to hurl and ram those bodies into one another.
“You want to feel what NFL players do on an average play? Run full speed into a wall mirror,” The Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins wrote in a piece that ran after the Buffalo Bills’ Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest during a game earlier this month. If you have followed what happened, then you know that Hamlin was taken to the hospital in critical condition. You also know that he has since been discharged and that he made a silent appearance at the team’s last game.
The breathtaking violence of an ordinary NFL hit
What happened to Hamlin was horrific and left the country reckoning, once again, with its love of football. More than that, though, it caused people to consider the human cost of keeping the sport popular and their own willingness to personally pay that price. The conclusion many came to: “My son won’t play football.”
If your social media feeds look like mine, then you have seen that sentiment expressed repeatedly in recent weeks. I have seen it come from people with babies, and I have seen it come from people who aren’t yet parents. I have seen it come from moms, and I have seen it come from dads. I have seen it come from people of different races, ethnicities and economic classes.
And each time that I’ve seen it, I’ve thought about how I said the same thing years ago. I have also thought about the problems that I’ve come to see with that statement.
The first problem: It is rooted in a privilege many don’t have.
If you have ever spent time in neglected neighborhoods, and I have spent plenty in my personal and professional life, then you have no doubt met children who, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, reach quickly for the answer “professional soccer player.” They see that as a way out of their circumstances, and that’s understandable, because society too often fails to offer them other options.
A football player couldn’t find a therapist who understood Black, urban trauma. So, they decided to become one.
That needs to change. Too many young men in poor communities are growing up thinking their athletic skills are the main measure of their worth. They need to be shown that they are valued in ways that go beyond the length of their legs and the bulk of their biceps, because, without that, they aren’t choosing football; we are choosing it for them.
The second problem with that statement: It’s easy to say those words when children are babies, but then they grow up.
When we are cradling those tiny heads and still-weak necks, it is natural to want to do everything we can to protect our children. I once placed myself between my infant son and a home intruder. The man eventually fled, but in the moments before he did, I knew I would do anything to keep my child safe.
Mothers are often at their best during the worst of times
My decision to limit my sons’ exposure to football was rooted in that same protective instinct. I figured that if they didn’t know much about the sport, then they’d never want to play it. What that meant in practice was that I didn’t keep them from watching games with relatives, but I never put a game on our TV otherwise. My husband and I also tried to Foster other interests in them. We enrolled them in soccer and exposed them to swimming, basketball, tennis and other sports and activities. In our garage, we have bats, gloves, goggles, bikes, scooters, skates, rackets and balls of all sorts: baseballs, basketballs, soccer balls, tennis balls and a ball with the face of a frog on it. What we don’t have: a football.
And yet, somehow, I ended up with an 8-year-old who has developed an obsession with football. He loves watching it and playing it and talking about it.
He begs me to find highlights from games online so he can study plays, and when given the chance to play video games, he almost always gravitates towards football-themed ones. At school, he has become known as the kid who goes straight for the football at recess. I’d heard that about him, and then it was confirmed when his Classmate came up to me at an evening gathering at another student’s house. Without prompting, she told me that she had meant to bring a football for my son that night. She figured he’d want to play with one, because he always wanted to play with one.
A boy, a bug and a different kind of love story
My son is fast and agile, and he brushes off physical pain with unusual quickness. He’s the kid who falls off his bike, wipes the gravel from his knees and keeps going. I have no idea whether he will develop the body structure needed to play football, 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 to high school.
When he told me that, I considered letting him know what I had long ago decided. Then I realized that he’s not a baby anymore and that, if I told him he couldn’t do it, he’d only want to do it more. I decided instead to be honest with him, so he would understand my fears. We talked openly about the body and head injuries players endure and how Hamlin’s story might have ended differently.
As we talked, my son asked a lot of thoughtful questions. They were the kind that led us to look up facts and that made me believe that he might be reconsidering his interest.
Then, a few days ago, I opened his backpack and saw a book he had checked out from his school’s library. The title: “Dallas Cowboys (Inside the NFL).”