Families making tough decisions about rough sports

Samara Freemark
Reporter
Public Insight Network
Macalester College football players practice rushing the passer. Doctors are worried that the NFL practice of playing despite concussions is emulated by college and high school teams. (Photo by Jim Bickal | MPR News)

Macalester College football players practice rushing the quarterback. Doctors are worried that the NFL practice of playing through concussions is emulated on college and high school teams. (Photo by Jim Bickal | MPR News)

Kate Janson, of Scottsdale, Ariz., loves football. Her Sundays are spent in front of the television, cheering on the Arizona Cardinals. She’s played fantasy football for years, carefully tracking statistics and scouting reports. Her husband played for his high school team in Texas, where football is close to a religion, and Kate was an athlete herself, a college volleyball player.

Her son, at 3 years old, already has the makings of a future star athlete. Kate  says he’s extraordinarily large for his age — and extremely coordinated,` daring and strong. He can ride a battery-powered kids’ Jeep down a flight of stairs, then drag it back up again. Strangers on the street stop Kate to joke that her toddler’s going to be in the NFL someday.

But the thought of her son playing football sends chills down her spine.

Parents don’t have to be big sports fans like Kate to hear the news: Sports injuries can have lifelong consequences.

In May, Junior Seau, an All-Pro linebacker who had played twenty seasons in the NFL, was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. His suicide – and those of other former NFL players in recent years – has been tied to brain injuries sustained on the football field. Research increasingly points to a connection between recurring concussions and depression, dementia and other mental impairments.

But for every professional football player in the United States, there are thousands of kids and teens who play the sport. And there are thousands more who play lacrosse, rugby, hockey and other contact sports. Researchers are just beginning to look at what kinds of hits those kids are taking – and what the possible effects will be. A recent small-scale study of 7- and 8-year-old football players showed that they received on average more than 100 hits to the head, some of them severe, over the course of a season. [Read a PDF of the full study here.] And researchers have found that head injuries are to a certain degree cumulative, especially in children: Once a kid gets his or her first concussion, the second and third and fourth occur more frequently — and on less impact.

But no one knows what the breaking point is – at which point the damage becomes catastrophic and irreparable. The research to date can mostly be summed up in a couple of words: There’s a lot we just don’t know.

For the parents of the millions of kids who play contact sports, all that research and news coverage boils down to one simple question: Should I let my child play?

At the Public Insight Network, we’re wondering how parents are weighing the risks and rewards of athletics as the fall sports season approaches. If you’re one of those parents, tell us about your decision.

Here’s some of what we’ve heard so far:

“Sports and getting hurt are a part of living well and growing up.”

Cassandra Gibson-Jones of The Woodlands, Texas, told us, “Worrying will not help. They will get hurt. My job is to teach them how to minimize injuries, to play smart.”

And Carly Wiggins of Kalamazoo, Mich., wrote, “The benefits far outweigh the risks.” Her son was injured playing football, and she remembers “making myself stay planted in the stands. The impulse to run to him was almost like the impulse to throw up, but I forced myself to let our coaches evaluate his condition. My son needs to learn to trust other people to take care of him, and I need to learn to trust others to help him as well.”

Gregg Pohll of Winlock, Wash., told us that “as parents, we held our breath just about every minute” that his son played football, but “sports and getting hurt are a part of living well and growing up.”

“It was never worth the risk.”

RD Harmony of Edmond, Okla., wrote, “I would have stood on my head to keep my son out of football … and he’s more than a fair candidate. He’s 6’5″ and weighs 240 lbs.”

Kellie Hamilton of Rougemont, N.C., asked that her daughter be excused from heading drills in soccer practice, and though her son “dearly wanted to play football,” she told him “‘absolutely not.’ For us, it was never worth the risk.”

“His future is in our hands.”

Many parents we spoke to were painfully conflicted.

Tim McCarty of North Canton, Ohio, has a 16-year-old son who plays lacrosse and suffered his second concussion this spring. “He took not one but two balls off his helmet within 25 minutes,” McCarty writes. “He missed the rest of the season, missed a week of school, finished school on half days doing homework in a separate quiet room. He is still doing vestibular and vision therapy.”

But McCarty and his wife haven’t decided yet whether to pull their son out of lacrosse. “Oh, we’ve thought about it,” he writes. “My wife and I know what’s coming: that we’re going to be advised to have him stop. But he loves the game and he loves the guys and being on the team, so it’s not going to be easy trying to convince a 16-year -old to think about when he’s 50. His future is in our hands.”

Now, it’s your turn: Do you let your children play contact sports? Tell us about your family’s decision and we might give you a call to find out more.

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Samara Freemark Reporter
Public Insight Network

Reporter/producer Samara Freemark joined the Public Insight Network after four years at Radio Diaries in New York City, where she spent her time helping ordinary people tell their extraordinary stories for NPR. In the process, she developed an unshakeable belief in the beauty and power of personal narrative.

Before Radio Diaries Samara worked as an environmental reporter, a posting that took her to sinking islands, Superfund sites, and literal snakepits – Burmese pythons, to be exact. She also churned out copy and tape in the newsroom of WUOM Ann Arbor. Before settling on a career in radio she tried out policy research, community organizing, and urban planning before deciding she preferred soundwaves to spreadsheets.