America’s views on youth football are shifting quickly. This became particularly apparent on Thursday, when ESPN reported that participation in Pop Warner dropped by 10 percent from 2010 to 2012, and Robert Morris University released the results from a poll showing that 40 percent of respondents supported a ban on kids playing tackle football before high school.
But if these stats are early signs of football’s decline, they are very early signs. Football is America’s Game, entrenched in the culture. It is the product that drives a multi-billion-dollar company. It is the thing we watch most each week and each year. “It is righteous, and only a jackass would cancel it,” Hunter S. Thompson wrote in 2004,
Into that quicksand steps Bronx Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, who in February became the first legislator in America to introduce a bill banning youth football in his state. His Thursday stood in contrast to the data about how much people were turning against football.
“I received a awful lot of criticism about this bill,” Benedetto, who represents the 82nd Assembly District in the East Bronx, said at a press conference that day, the Times-Union reported. “I have certainly received dozens of emails for and against — mostly against — this proposal, I’ll be honest.”
The bill Benedetto drafted months ago proposed prohibiting kids age 10 and younger from playing tackle football anywhere in New York.
“This is absolutely the first we have heard of any state doing something like this,” Pop Warner’s executive director, John Butler, told the Daily News in February. “Frankly, it is disturbing.”
The Robert Morris poll suggested that such a proposal might find some sympathetic ears — 47.6 percent of respondents said that they favored barring contact football for kids below middle school age. But Benedetto did not find such support at the statehouse. According to the Times-Union, only six other assembly members signed on to back the bill. Benedetto has yet to find a state senator willing to sponsor it.
Which brings us to his reason for the press conference on Thursday, where Benedetto announced that he was changing the bill so as to ban football for kids younger than 14.
And while not a single politician joined Benedetto behind the podium, Dr. Robert Cantu, one of the leading neurologists studying the brains of football players, did.
“When I introduced the bill and arbitrarily selected the age of 10 years old and below, it was figuring it would be more politically pliable to get the bill passed,” said Benedetto. “Two things happened since then: Number one, I realized it will be just as difficult to get the bill passed with 14 being the age as 10 — there’s absolutely no difference in my mind. Secondly, listening to Dr. Cantu and the studies on brain development, I just came to the simple conclusion that if you’re going to do this, let’s do this right.”
Next: Cantu’s thoughts on the matter.
Cantu, co-director of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, was one of the first researchers to discover tau proteins — which signify the neurological disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy — in the brains of multiple former professional football players. In his book, Concussions and Our Kids, Cantu recommends that kids under 14 avoid tackle football.
Total brain trauma is the worry regarding child athletes. If you start accumulating injuries early in life, chances are that you will have a greater number of them during your life. It’s unclear what the effects of that long-term repetitive trauma might be. The philosophy I preach to my patients is as follows: No head trauma is good head trauma. If knocking around the brain can be avoided, then avoid it. This is my mantra even though there are many blanks to fill in regarding our knowledge of head trauma and its true effects. One concern is that kids who are playing in a tackle football league at age five (yes, such leagues exist) or engaged in another rough-and-tumble sport are at risk of a degenerative brain disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
It’s a worry that drifts to the front of the mind every time we hear about the latest former NFL player suffering cognitive disfunction in middle age. On Monday, Brett Favre, a 44-year-old who retired just two years ago after taking more sacks than any quarterback in league history over his 20 year career, told “Today” that he sometimes has trouble finishing sentences, “or not remembering a word.”
“I’m almost glad I don’t have a son because of the pressures he would face,” he told Matt Lauer. “Also the physical toll that it could possibly take on him, not to mention if he never made it, he’s gonna be a failure in everyone’s eyes. But more the physical toll that it could take.”
And that’s coming from the man who loved football so much he announced his comeback four months after announcing his retirement.
It’s one thing to dissuade parents from signing their boys up for tackle football. It’s another to make the game illegal. As Benedetto has seen in his efforts to do so, the rising tide against youth football has a high wall to breach. Football’s roughness, after all, has always been one of it’s most appealing traits. We know much more now that we did five years ago about the true harm football can do to the brain, but even back then it didn’t take a neurologist to know that the sport is violent and that playing it can cause permanent and serious damage.
The argument that football will follow boxing’s path from mainstream to niche hinges on the idea that brain-battering hits are innate to the sport. As George Plimpton wrote in Paper Lion, “At the base of it was the urge, if you wanted to play football, to knock someone down, that was what the sport was all about, the will to win closely linked with contact.”
When you play youth and high school football you can minimize contact to some, small extent — shy away from the oncoming blocker here, run out of bounds there. But when you begin to embrace the contact, to thirst for it — like a grade-schooler tossing away the umbrella and sliding into the mud — there’s a certain rush of pride, of out-of-body freedom, of knowing that almost any challenge off the field pales in comparison. Perhaps it’s a rush generated only by forces of socialization, of a childhood spent watching NFL Films.
But those who know the feeling understand it’s power. And that’s why, on one recent evening at Betsy Head Park in Brownsville, two parents explained why they brought their sons to play for the Mo Better Jaguars (subjects of our cover story earlier this month).
“Football-wise, it’s harder here,” one father said to another. “It’s tough.”
“You play on this field, you can play anywhere,” added the other father.
“A lot of the other programs, they –” the first father paused, searching for the word.
“Soft,” said the second.
“They baby ’em.”
Perhaps one day basketball or soccer or chess or some combination of various recreations will drain football’s pool of participants. We will debate the merits of such a future a lot in the coming years. For better or worse, whatever replaces football will almost certainly be tamer.
One Mo Better player, 10-year-old T.J., had a simple explanation for why he played:
“Mostly I like the contact,” he said. “When you’re mad, it’s the best part. Like, it gets your anger out and stuff. I hit hard when I’m mad. If I’m not mad, I’ma hit you hard, but I’m not gon’ hit you as hard.”
Send story tips to the author, Albert Samaha