Should your kid play football?


To play or not to play

Should your kid play football?

It is a question that might have been unthinkable to many just a few years ago.

Football is part of our culture. More than half a century ago, it supplanted baseball as the American pastime. Upward of 100 million people — about a third of the population — watch the Super Bowl each year.

Around here, it is more than just sport and entertainment. Some have likened it to a religion. Without question, it is an important part of the fabric of society.

Increasingly, however, the sport has come under fire. Almost every day it seems a new study is released linking football to brain trauma. It is responsible for more injuries than any other sport at the high school level. Participation in high school football is steadily dropping nationally.

So parents are facing the question of whether they should let their children play.

The Tuscaloosa News delved into that issue, undertaking a thorough examination of the game’s dangers and benefits. There is no clear answer, but it is abundantly apparent that parents need to educate themselves about the risks and rewards before making a decision.

A survey by The Tuscaloosa News found that more than 25 percent of respondents would not let their children play high school football. Proponents cited positives that come from playing, while others enumerated the perils.

The movie “Concussion,” released in 2015, raised awareness of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a medical condition of brain deterioration better known as CTE, which has been found to be prevalent in former National Football League players as well as some who played at lower levels.

“If you classify your sports based on the amount of contact or collision, football is way up there,” said Dr. Jimmy Robinson, medical director and head team physician for the University of Alabama and medical director for the Alabama High School Athletic Association. “The more collision (in) sports you have, the more dangerous it will be.”

The question of football’s viability has become part of a national dialogue. A contestant in last month’s Miss America pageant was asked if full-contact football should be outlawed at the elementary and high school levels. Briana Kinsey, the 24-year-old Miss District of Columbia — a Hoover native who graduated from the University of Alabama in 2015 — came out in favor of abolishing the sport due to its dangers.

Alabama coach Nick Saban, who has won five national championships, including four at UA, disagrees.

“I think football is a great game, it’s the greatest team game of any game that is out there that guys can play,” he said.

The case for football

Advocates cite football’s ability to teach teamwork, discipline, toughness and leadership.

The sport has no better proponent than Saban. What makes it great, according to the coach, is the things it teaches.

“There’s a lot of lessons to be learned in any athletic competition,” he said. “Football, because of the number of participants and the number of ways that people can contribute, I think is a phenomenal way — and it was really good for me growing up — to develop sort of some of the attributes that it takes to be successful, whether it was commitment, hard work, perseverance, ability to overcome adversity, pride in performance.”

Overcoming fear is also part of the game.

“I think as a kid it was more the sound of it that scared you more than the contact,” said Travis Reier, senior analyst at BamaOnline.com, a website that covers Alabama football. “That’s more what I recall from the early days of playing: You could hear it, it makes that sound. It’s indelible, and you know it.”

Getting past that fear had its rewards.

“Just the structure: being on time, doing what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it,” Reier said. “I was very blessed to have excellent coaches from the earliest levels.

“I don’t like to even think about what might have happened to me as a kid if I didn’t have the football coaches I had. They didn’t ask it from me; they demanded it. They got everything I had, which wasn’t a whole lot, but again, I was on time, I was where I was supposed to be.

“It helped me in school, too. It carried over. I think it was sort of unconsciously, but that regimen that I went through with football, it helped me in school.”

In many ways, football is the sport of opportunity. According to data compiled by the NCAA, it can be a gateway to higher education, with 25 percent of players — the highest percentage of any sport — becoming the first in their families to attend college.

While football has the lowest cumulative grade-point average of any NCAA sport at 2.75, players at the Division I and Division III (non-scholarship) levels graduate at well above the national average at 74 and 75 percent, respectively. Division II players graduate at a 51 percent rate, below the national average of 59 percent cited by the U.S. Department of Education.

Football players at the University of Alabama graduate at an 80 percent rate, according to the latest NCAA report. The average graduation rate for the sport among Southeastern Conference schools is 72.8 percent.

The benefits, however, must be weighed against the dangers. With the mounting medical evidence of football’s association with brain trauma, changes in rules, treatment of injured players and equipment are at the forefront with leaders in the sport.

“I think we will continue to evolve,” said Steve Savarese, executive director of the Alabama High School Athletic Association, who was a longtime football coach before moving into his current position. “Better equipment. Safer game. Even more data. In the computer age, we’ve been able to collect much more data, and that data is the key to us formulating policies and rules for the future, so I think you’ll see an even safer game, because there is such a positive benefit of participating in sports.

“I think it will continue to evolve. I pray that is what it does.”

Central High School coach Dennis Conner said he believes players leave the game with better coping skills.

“Football is just like life,” he said. “You are going to get knocked down; you’ve got to get back up. You are going to have bad days, and you’ve still got to fight through that. You are going to have long days, and you’ve got to fight through that. There are days you are going to get up and you are going to be sick.

“You know, football is a parallel of life, and without God and football I don’t know what I would be doing right now.”

The case against football

Football critics can point to its high incidence of injury, with more than 42 percent of the injuries sustained by high school athletes in all sports over the last 10 years occurring in football practices or games, according to data compiled for the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Of greater concern, more than 46 percent of concussions sustained by high school athletes come from football.

Bill Curry is a former Alabama head coach who played 10 years in the NFL. After a game in which he sustained a concussion playing for the Green Bay Packers, he had the following exchange with his coach, Vince Lombardi:

“Curry, come here,” the coach said. “Do you know where you are?”

“No, sir.”

“Do you know who you are?”

“No, I don’t,” Curry answered.

“Do you know who won the game?”

“Yes, sir, we did.”

“You’ll be fine,” the coach told him.

Curry doesn’t remember the incident. He knows about it because his wife, who was there, told him.

That’s the way it was in the old days, when a player knocked unconscious might be revived by ammonia capsules and put back on the field.

“All of us have stories like that,” Curry said of his old NFL mates.

Curry has had five shoulder replacement surgeries, a broken nose and a deviated septum that had to be repaired three times. It wasn’t until his ninth year in the pro league — after 10 previous years of high school and college ball — that he sustained what he considered a serious injury, when his knee was “shattered.”

Curry didn’t want his son to play football.

“I got him piano lessons, I got him golf clubs, basketball goals, everything,” the former coach said.

Yet every morning, the son would put on a football helmet. Finally, when he was 10, the child challenged his father: “You’re the coach at Georgia Tech and you’re not going to let me play?”

The younger Curry played through three surgeries, walked on at Virginia and earned a scholarship as a long snapper.

“He had a great experience doing something I didn’t want him to do,” Curry said. “I didn’t want him to get beat up. Now he’s got five boys and they’re playing football.”

Curry says he doesn’t regret playing. Now 75, he recounts lessons he learned from the game that shaped his life. He fondly remembers playing for coaching giants like Lombardi, Bobby Dodd, Don Shula and even Paul W. “Bear” Bryant, Alabama’s legendary coach, for a week at an all-star game.

But he also counts the friends who have suffered from dementia and died.

“Out of the people that played as long as I did, I think maybe I’m the luckiest one,” he said.

North River Christian Academy, a small private school that moved up to 11-man football two seasons ago after previously playing eight-man ball, started the season with 23 players. Due to injuries, the Chargers were down to just 18 healthy players by early October.

In the first month of play, no less than four NRCA players left games via ambulance.

“I think it’s more the parents being more precautious, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that,” said Todd Jones, the school’s athletics director. “It’s a good thing. People now are going to a greater extent to making sure the kid is OK.”

The risk of injury is balanced by some parents against the possible reward of earning a scholarship to play in college. The data, however, suggests that may be pursuing fool’s gold: only 5 percent of high school football players in the state are recruited by Division I schools, and only 6.8 percent of all high school players nationally go on to play NCAA football at some level.

A changing game

Football has evolved from an Americanized form of rugby at its beginnings to the more wide-open game we see today.

By the 1950s, offenses concentrated on the running game. Three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust attacks were based upon controlling the line of scrimmage by physical blocking in close quarters.

Into the 1950s, substitution rules were strict. Players played both offense and defense, with the same 11 on each team playing the entire game for the most part.

A major rule change in the 1960s allowed offensive linemen to use their hands, improving the ability to better protect the quarterback and opening up the passing game.

Today’s spread offenses utilize the width and depth of the field, with an emphasis on getting the ball into the hands of speedy playmakers in open space. This style of offense creates the ability to make large gains, but it also leads to an increase in hard hits on vulnerable receivers, especially when they run routes across the middle.

More recently, safety rules that outlaw dangerous shots to the head and leading with the helmet have been implemented. A high school rule introduced this year similarly penalizes blind-side blocks.

Practices are less stressful on players, too. Back-to-back days of contact have been legislated out of the high school game, and two-a-day practices have been done away with at the high school and college levels. Long gone are the days when players were denied water breaks during practice to enhance their toughness.

Brutal camps like the one Bryant held in 1954 in Junction, Texas, for his Texas A&M players — including Gene Stallings, a future Alabama head coach — could never happen today.

“Absolutely they’re making the game safer,” said Robinson, the Alabama team physician.

Jones, the athletics director at North River Christian Academy, played in the late 1970s and early ’80s at Holt High School under Woody Clements. He said he believes the game has become softer.

“Coach Clements would do anything in the world, help you with anything you needed done, but when we practiced, we practiced,” Jones said. “We weren’t allowed water bottles and we didn’t have breaks every 20 minutes or what have you. We had 3 seconds, the water would go in your helmet and you’d drink it out of your helmet.

“When it came 5 o’clock, you didn’t leave. You left when practice was over.”

The future of football

What will the game look like in 10 or 20 years? No one knows for sure, but the best answer may come from looking at the past.

“There’s a long history of rules changes, of adapting, of keeping the sport around and not getting rid of it,” said Michael Wood, an American Studies instructor at UA. “So I would see, before football just disappears, efforts made to make it safer.”

On the equipment front, research is ongoing to create helmets that better protect from concussive and sub-concussive blows.

“I don’t necessarily agree that helmet design makes a big difference,” Robinson said. “Helmets were really designed to prevent skull fractures, and some of the newer helmets that are coming out are actually heavier, and especially at the high school or little league level, if the helmet’s heavier, they don’t have the neck muscle control to hold that helmet up. That can be an issue.”

Changing the nature of the sport may be on the horizon. Many high school teams play 7-on-7 football in the offseason, a form of the game with no tackling, blocking or running plays, in keeping with today’s spread offenses. It’s a passing game where a touch below the neck ends a play.

Long ago, Curry asked Tom Landry, the longtime Dallas Cowboys coach, what direction he thought the game would take. Landry told him that he foresaw a move toward a precision passing game.

“That was in the late 1980s, when I was at Alabama,” Curry said, “and that’s exactly what happened.”

Today’s wide-open passing game that has taken hold in the high school, college and NFL ranks seems as distant from the 1950s form of hard-nosed ball as an even less physical form might seem in another decade or two.

A move even further in that direction may be met with resistance from fans.

“The hardest part of that will be convincing the fans who have had over 100 years of football being this violent, kind of masculine, rough sport, convincing them that this is still football,” Wood said.

Should your kid play?

For parents facing the decision of whether to let their kids play, it comes down to weighing the possible hazards against the benefits.

Those contemplating getting their children involved at a young age might consider easing them into it. Many medical experts, Robinson said, advocate not playing tackle ball before they reach high school age.

“Before then, they should play maybe a flag football-type sport where they’re learning the game better,” he said.

The doctor said he would like to see youth football — both the tackle and flag forms — include instruction in fundamentals such as proper tackling techniques, as well as neck-strengthening exercises to build a better muscular support base for the head, and vision training to anticipate big hits before they happen.

“Do that while they’re younger,” he said, “so it becomes natural for them when they’re playing the sport.”

Parents should know what their kids are getting into before allowing them to play.

“There are dangers in football,” said Lamar Harris, who is in his 41st year of coaching at Hubbertville High School. “It is a violent sport. That is what it is. Anytime you come out there, you assume those risks.

“That’s not to say we shouldn’t be as safe as we can possibly be, but it is a sport of hitting.”

Many have made the move to lighter-contact youth ball. Local youth flag football participation is up from 237 players to 475 over the last five years, an increase of more than 100 percent.

Parents should also check out youth coaches before signing up their kids.

“I think that’s the key to everything, and not just in terms of learning to play the right way and safely and all of those things, but just the life lessons I got out of the game,” Reier said.

Jason Bothwell, an assistant coach at Northridge High School, said he sees a lot of young players who haven’t been taught proper fundamentals. They inflict more harm on themselves than their opponents.

Bothwell doesn’t have children, but if he did he’d vet the coaches before letting them play.

“If they’re put in the hands of the right instructors or coaches that can teach them how to formally play the game, to escape injury, I would strongly consider it,” he said. “But just (to let them play) to make a little league coach look good and them not getting what they need to help them sustain their career through high school, then I probably wouldn’t.”

Dr. Tosh Atkins, an orthopedic surgeon, came to his occupation in large part because of his experience with football in the early 1980s at Central High School.

“I broke several fingers and dislocated my thumb,” he said. “I separated my shoulder, and then my senior year I injured my knee and had surgery and missed a few games. I had my share of injuries.”

Atkins was offered the chance to play for the Air Force Academy, but he turned it down to pursue a career in medicine.

“From football and from some of the ways I injured myself, I had an opportunity to have some orthopedic surgery, got introduced to it and decided that that was what I wanted to do,” he said.

Atkins has two adult sons who played high school ball, and he says he is happy they did. He has two younger ones who are now playing in a flag league. Whether they will progress to tackle ball hasn’t been decided.

He cautions that football isn’t for everybody.

“It was really an individualized decision for me,” he said. “For some people it probably is not a good idea for them to play, but I’m happy I played.”

Joey Chandler and Molly Catherine Walsh contributed to this report.