Dr. Frank Dill lives in Jacksonville, N.C., a few minutes from Camp Lejeune. He grew up in Oklahoma, where football is king. He played high school football, then went to Cornell. So you'd expect his sons to play football, right? They play soccer.
Dr. Dill is among a growing number of parents who take a jaundiced view of organized football for their kids. "It's not that I don't like football. I watch on Sundays like everybody else. But as a doctor, I've seen some injuries that don't always seem worth the effort. My younger boy is a senior in high school and he has a deformed left arm. He plays soccer and gets a real kick out of it."
As an example of soccer's popularity, it's estimated that 120,000 youths play soccer in the Washington, D.C., area.
While not every parent who says no to football does so for the same reason, there are common threads. Serious injury to teen-aged, still-developing bodies is mentioned most often. That is why my father never let me play football. I was short and skinny and he didn't want to take any chances -- "too risky," he always told me. There were two football fields 40 yards from our house.
Football injuries are much more commonplace than are soccer injuries. The Physician and Sports Medicine magazine recently reported that soccer had an injury rate about 4 percent that of football.
Sadly, there also are racial reasons for the move away from football. Football seems to be getting "too black" in some places. One white mother of three football-playing boys, the youngest of whom now plays high school football, says, "I've been going to the Friday night games for years, but more and more it seems you have to be black to play in the backfield. Most white kids feel they don't have a chance of being a halfback or a fullback if there are any halfway-decent black players."
This wasn't said with bitterness or resentment. She added, "You know it wouldn't be so bad if more members of the team got a little recognition. But on Saturday morning when my youngest opens the paper to the sports section, he'll never see his picture in the paper."
Money also is a factor, for the school as well as the parent. Insurance rates for varsity high school football players are usually six to 10 times higher than those for varsity soccer. Football insurance is in the range of $60 to $90 per player per season -- with strings attached. Soccer costs about $8 for the same standard $2,000 to $3,000 insurance policy. Football equipment averages about $25 to $40 per player, per season -- not counting sleds, practice dummies, etc. And an average ticket price of $2-$3 per game is not enough to makes ends meet.
The two-seasons-per-year feature of soccer also is cited. Soccer is played year-round; football is seasonal. Dr. Dill noted, "Here in North Carolina the weather doesn't get that bad too long, so you now see soccer played around here 12 months a year, with maybe a little lull when basketball starts. Football is suffering the most, though baseball is starting to feel the competition form spring soccer."
The age-group, peer-pressure factor presents an interesting twist. In most sports, the age of a boy or a girl (soccer is coed until age 13) decides the makeup of teams. In football, however, it is weight classification. The sizes of 12- to 17-year-old boys can vary widely.
Dr. Dill said, "A 13-year-old boy has a very fragile and undeveloped ego. If he wants to play football with his friends, but he is small for his age, are we going to let him play with a group of 11-year-olds who weigh the same? Until soccer came along, that kid had nothing to do between baseball and basketball."
A black mother from Miami lamented the ethnic pressure to let her 16-year-old son play high school football: "I don't want him to play football. My son plays defense and he goes through these changes on Thursdays and Fridays. Gets real mean. He says that's what the pro players do."
When taking her concern to the coach, who also is black, she was told: "The real world is tougher than some football games -- your son should learn to take a few hard knocks." Black parents whose children attend mostly black schools feel the heat more intensely to let their kids play football than do white parents.
I'm glad my father said no to football for me. I really wanted to play because my friends played, but I would have been scared to death. At the very least this increasing hesitancy on the part of parents will make organized football safer -- and that in itself is a plus.