My 9-year-old son plays flag football. He loves playing. I love watching him play. But he's now of the age where if he's going to keep playing, he needs to transition to tackle football.
And I just don't know what to think.
As the mother of three boys who, like their dad, love all things football, I find myself torn. Given the undeniable long-term effects of repeated blows to the head and body, I am mother bearishly opposed to my sons playing, or even glorifying professionals who excel at the sport.
But it's not that simple.
In this age of incessantly streaming devices, I love that there is an activity to play and to watch that binds my boys and family together. A part of me also relishes how the "hard knocks" nature of this particular activity chafes at the prevalent culture of coddled youngsters — and their helicopter parents. I know I'm not alone in seeing the benefits of a tough coach, team play, and well-honed lessons in how to fall and get back up. Reluctantly, I understand why my husband references his football coach, teammates, and success and failure on the field as the most formative, character-building experiences of his life.
I did not grow up in a football family. I attended an all-girls high school. And while I noted Super Bowl Sundays as an occasion to enjoy bowls of chips, dips, and entertaining commercials with my dad and brothers, football carried little weight in my life experience. Until, as the cliche goes, I met a guy. While we were dating up through when the kids were toddlers, however, Bill's passion for football remained a minor detail. Until I readily joined him in admiring the agility of our son as he raced a foam ball into our living room's end zone for hours.
"He's going to be an awesome wide receiver or some other noteworthy position," my husband would say, scooping our son up for a diaper change or feeding. I didn't even respond because the very idea of this baby in pads and a helmet sounded ludicrous, particularly when the most pressing victory at the time was getting him to sleep.
Ten years later, we have three boys who want nothing more than to run, catch, throw balls, score touchdowns, and watch them being made over and over again. Our youngest, a 9-year-old ESPN addict, can relay a Monday morning report on every NFL player and team and the prospects for that night's match-up.
As much as I rail against the sport's dangers, I look forward to a big game on a Sunday afternoon, bodies strewn across sofas around a plate of nachos. In between plays we catch up on our week: the travel, practices, homework, and tests that lie ahead. In a world that at times seems to do everything it can to pull families apart, this sport brings us together. And for that I am grateful.
But these days, you must be wary where you express this sentiment. Like any competitive profession, motherhood can be a cutthroat business. And where we live, a pro-football stance can be met with looks of dismay, suspicion, and self-righteous condemnation. A mother who sends her son out to play football — wow — has she not read the reports, seen the news coverage, pored over the scientific evidence? Does she read?
The other day, as a mom relayed how much she loves her sons' (grade 2 and 4) football coach and league, she quickly qualified her enthusiasm: "I'm from Wisconsin. We let our boys play tackle. … And they just love to play."
Even though I'm from Queens (and read), my boys love to play as well. While I may not be ready to don a cheerleading outfit and pledge my enthusiastic support, I understand the draw. As a former college athlete, I admire the physical, mental, and emotional prowess that practice and games entail. I appreciate the graceful arc of a well-thrown ball, the incredible athleticism involved in a diving catch, the remarkable agility required of the cut and run. As a mom, I relish the smiles, the high fives, the palpable pride and joy my sons feel for themselves and their teammates when they play.
But I know it's dangerous. I do, I do.
As an NFL doctor told Dr. Bennet Omalu, the man who first discovered CTE in the brain of Hall of Famer Mike Webster, "If 10 percent of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that is the end of football." But that's not quite right. All moms perceive the sport as dangerous. But I also don't know a single football mom who would support an end to the sport entirely.
Like so much of parenting, marriage — life — it's complicated. So let's discuss, debate, and consider all perspectives, even that of a 9-year-old boy — and his football-loving dad.