When football legends Bo Jackson, Harry Carson and Mike Ditka say it, it’s a big deal. People pay attention to what athletes of their stature say.
The “it” is that they would never let their sons play football.
With increasing revelations regarding the link between tackle football and brain trauma, this should come as no surprise. If anyone knows the extreme violence and physicality of football it is those who have played it for a living.
It’s difficult to say exactly what sort of an impact their statements have had on the participation levels of tackle football. Regardless, their comments have raised eyebrows and generated dialogue. When a football legend makes such a statement, it opens the door for other players to offer thoughts on the subject. Every time another NFL star joins the chorus, the impact is compounded.
One important impact they have had is that it is helping to create a football “safe space” for kids who really don’t want to play. Far too often young kids feel they are expected to play and thus, believe they have little choice in the matter. They don’t want to disappoint their father, friends or community. That’s a lot of pressure on a 10, 12 or 15 year-old, particularly in communities where football is considered very important.
I was one of those kids.
I loved the game early in childhood. One of my earliest childhood memories is at age five, discovering a new football under the Christmas tree. Soon thereafter, I was fully decked out in my football “uniform” kicking that football all around the snowy, empty side lot next to our duplex apartment. I was “all in” on football.
But by the time I was in sixth grade, I realized that football was not for me. I had fallen hopelessly in love with basketball and wanted to play it year round. I came to dread the arrival of football season because it meant that I wouldn’t be able to play much, if any, basketball.
As a very athletic son of the high school football coach, I felt that pressure. By the eighth grade, I actively tried to gain the additional weight needed to put me over the community league-mandated limit. I was relieved when I weighed in well above the limit. I quietly celebrated with my Mom.
While the fact that I no longer wanted to play football created ample friction and angst in our household, my Father, to his great credit, understood and respected my love of basketball.
My guess is that had there been a prominent and growing list of football legends talking about not letting their children play the game back in 1971, it would have been much easier and more acceptable for me and other kids to opt out of playing football.
“If Troy Aikman, Adrian Peterson and Terry Bradshaw say they wouldn’t let their sons play football, why do I have to play?”
If that isn’t enough impact, here’s an even bigger one. The impact on parents and in particular, Fathers. Kids aren’t the only ones who feel peer and community pressure to play football. Parents often feel community pressure to have their sons be a part of the team. Having NFL legends say that they would not allow their kids to play football makes it easier for a parent to say the same thing.
“Your boy playing football?”
“If Bart Scott, Brett Favre and Jermichael Finley all say that they won’t allow their sons to play because it’s too dangerous, why would I allow my son?”
The impact of the comments of these football legends should not be underestimated. For in making them, they have provided “cover” for kids who don’t want to play to declare without risk of ridicule or having to face the prospect of undue peer pressure that they aren’t going to play.
And perhaps even more important, it provides similar “cover” and “safe space” for parents to support their child’s wish not to play or to simply prohibit their son from playing even if he wants to.