The football world was rocked this week when Chris Borland, a promising, young linebacker for the SF 49ers, decided to retire rather than risk lifelong injury. As more and more evidence has been mounting that repeated head trauma (even when protected by a helmet) can have a lifelong, cumulative effect, this early retirement calls the question: is football fundamentally unsafe? For people in my age group (whose playing days are long behind us) the real question is: “Would I let my kid play football?”
I’m really divided on this. football was a really integral part of my development as a young man, as a leader, as a teammate, as a disciplined goal achiever, and (certainly at TJ!) as a prevailing underdog. Lifelong friendships were made on the field and lifelong experiences took place under the friday night lights.
Could the same have happened in another sport or even a non-sport activity? I would assume so, but, for whatever reason, football was just a better fit for me than baseball, wrestling, track, Boy Scouts, theatre, and all the other activities that slowly fell by the wayside as I grew older. I loved football and I was good at it so it became a fantastic “sandbox” in which for me to grow and develop. If I had a son, I would hope for him to have access to that sandbox too.
But we now know much more than we did back then about the implications of repetitive head trauma. I’m not sure I would let a son play today, knowing what we now know. Although I feel blessed to have made it through a college career without any major injuries or surgeries (which I can’t say about many of my teammates), lord knows I played through some concussions in my day. And lord knows I dished out many more concussions than I received – something of which I was proud at the time but at which I look back now with regret.
New research seems to be implicating other sports – like soccer – as well in such head trauma, although I really can’t imagine that it’s at the same level. But it does remind me that the question isn’t: “Is football dangerous?” It’s “Is football more dangerous than other sports? If so, how much more so?”
At the end of the day, parents can’t protect children from all dangers. In fact, it would be a disservice for them to do so, lest their children grow up completely unable to defend for themselves. So I suppose it’s up to parents and athletes to make an informed decision about whether the [unique] risks of an activity outweigh its [unique] rewards. One thing is clear, though: in order to empower parents and athletes to make that assessment for football, we need more, better, and more available data.