Would You Let Your Son Play Football?

If not, how can you take joy from a game that's killing its players and their loved ones?


So: Are you going to let your son play football?

I’m not. And if you’re like growing numbers of parents, you won’t either: Pop Warner participation rates dropped almost 10 percent between 2010 and 2012. Why? Because we love our sons, and we are worried that the rough, tumble, and hard knocks of a football game might turn their brains into soup.

There’s a name for the soup: CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy. It’s a brain-wasting disease notable for producing depression, sharp personality changes, and erratic, even violent behavior among those who suffer from it — and those who suffer from it seem to be disproportionately people who hit and get hit for a living: Football players. I’ve written about it before, noting that it seemed connected to the suicides of Penn lineman Owen Thomas and former Eagles standout Andre Waters, and asking whether it might’ve had anything to do with the murder charges against former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez.

It’s worth revisiting now because of three reports that emerged in recent weeks:

• First, it was reported that Jovan Belcher’s autopsy found signs of CTE in his brain. Belcher was the Kansas City Chiefs player who killed his girlfriend, then himself, in December 2012.

• An unrelated report revealed that CTE had been found in the brains of 76 of 79 former players it had examined.

• Finally, it was reported that the NFL’s own actuarial data suggests as many as a third of former players can be expected to develop neurocognitive problems.

“The higher the level you play football and the longer you play football, the higher your risk,” said Dr. Ann McKee, the director of the brain bank that did the study on the 79 former players.

Let’s step back and admit something here: CTE is elevated in athletes of all kinds of high-contact sports, like hockey and field hockey. If you want to complain about football being singled out for blame here, that’s probably (somewhat) fair.

Except: Football dominates our society — and our fall weekends — in ways that, say, field hockey, or even ice hockey, can never hope to match. The NFL’s revenues are thought to be somewhere approaching $10 billion. The 10 richest major college programs brought in a combined $759 million just on their own in 2011.

If football disappears, so does much — not all, but much — of the problem with CTE.

Hold your horses, though, buster: I’m not advocating a football ban. I don’t expect it would get anywhere. But I think it’s possible that a generation from now, football will be a marginalized and even disreputable sport. And I’m personally fine with that progression.

It goes back to that opening question: Would you let your son play football?

If you wouldn’t, how much joy can you take from watching somebody else’s son — or brother, or husband, or father — play the game, knowing that every hit they inflict and endure increasingly damages their brain, shortens their life, and alters their personality so that the sweet man their families once knew is gone, often hidden in a cloud of alcohol and violence?

The game, whatever its virtues, just isn’t worth it.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.