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Telling my son, ‘No, you can’t play football’

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My son is crazy about sports. He’s both a participant and an observer: he plays soccer year-round, and he recently took up a bat and glove for the first time. He can also recite for you the numbers corresponding to every sports channel we receive from our cable television provider.

As obsessions go, I approve of this one. I never have to tell this kid to get exercise. He loves his iPod, but he puts it down without complaint for a game, a practice or because he spies a ball in the yard—any kind of ball. Except for the sex-and-violence advertising and the periodic bad- athlete behavior I find myself needing to explain, I don’t even mind the sports-viewing on television. He wants to watch his favorite baseball team? Nothing wrong with that.

But as I watched my son develop an interest in football as he approached adolescence, I grew uneasy. I want him to be able to explore his varied interests and to take chances as he grows up so he can figure out who he is. But I also want him to learn to evaluate risk and make smart decisions, and as I learned more about the long-term effects suffered by football players exposed to repeated helmet-to-helmet collisions, I realized that I couldn’t say yes to the request I knew was coming.

Sure enough, my son approached me shortly before he turned 11. “Mommy,” he asked, “can I play football next year?”

I inhaled deeply. (I don’t know if he’s figured it out yet, but when I take a deep breath before I answer a question, either something bad is coming or I’m about to discuss sex, drugs or difficult family matters.)

“No, honey. I’m sorry. Not football. I’ll support you playing just about any other sport. But I can’t in good conscience let you play football.”


“Because I like your brain the way it is.” With that sentence, my son and I launched into a back-and-forth that lasted a year.

[Sally Jenkins: Youth football concussions can be prevented. With a flag.]

Over the course of the next 12 months, I explained to my son my concerns about the brain injuries now known to be commonly suffered in football. I talked to him about concussions and non-concussive head injuries, and about how even those NFL safety measures that have been implemented in recent years have yet to filter down to most youth-level tackle football leagues.

I did research, and I read through dozens of articles until I found a few I thought would be clear and concise enough to hold the attention of a kid his age; then I handed those articles to him to read. I discussed the difference between the occasional broken bones or concussions he might sustain on any other athletic field and the still murky nature of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) caused by the repeated blows to the head in football.

So that he would understand that my concerns weren’t just overprotective hype, I talked with him-carefully-about the suicide of Junior Seau. I told him about the NFL lawsuit and answered his questions about the suit’s settlement to the best of my ability. I distributed this information in small, occasional pieces suitable for tween digestion, making sure to leave ample opportunity for questions and rebuttal.

And rebut my son did. He is nothing if not a top-flight arguer. If someone makes an incorrect statement, chances are my son will call foul. On this topic, about which he cared deeply, he found gaps in my knowledge, flaws in my arguments and materials to support his position. His precision forced me to do my homework and consider all sides of the issue.

But when his arguments ultimately failed him, my son did what any kid his age would do: he got angry.

The two of us spent much of the year at odds. He yelled, he accused me of never letting him do anything he wanted to do, he tested me with additional requests for independence. Why couldn’t he walk alone to school, sit in the front seat of the car, stay home by himself at night? My son is not often prone to outbursts, but these confrontations frequently ended in tears.

To tell the truth, there were times I wavered. How many kids have played football over the years and are fine today? How many of my son’s friends play football? How could I keep him from doing something he so badly wanted to do? He didn’t want to take drugs or rob a bank. He wanted, with all of his young heart, to play football. What made me so sure I was right?

A friend relayed to me that she’d been to a lecture where the speaker said the tough parenting decisions aren’t the ones you make when you’re sure of yourself but your child is mad at you as a result. “No, you can’t go to the party at the home of the kid whose parents are away for the weekend.” That’s easy. It’s the decisions that leave you second-guessing yourself that are hard. You won’t know if you’re right until your kid is grown. Or maybe you’ll never know. You just have to do your best and hope you made the right call.

My son and I eventually reached a detente. I believe he understands my position, even if he still doesn’t like it. I respect that he maintains an opinion which is different from mine, and, when he tried to show me an article that he thought supported his view and I shot it down before I read it, I went back to him and apologized for my dismissive behavior and read the article. I also respect that despite his disappointment, he was mature enough to recognize reality and move on to find another interest-baseball-and develop great enthusiasm for that sport, even as he continued to play soccer and watch more sports than I can tally.

Did I make the right decision? I believe so. My son and I respect each other, and he’s keeping his brain safe. For now, that’s good enough for me.

Tracy Hahn-Burkett is a writer and former public policy advocate. She writes the parenting blog, Uncharted Parent. Her web site is, and she tweets @THahnBurkett.

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