Flag to Tackle: A Football Mom Weighs In

She approaches furtively and speaks in hushed tones.

“Have you thought about what you might do next year?”

“He really wants to – but I just can’t…AWESOME RUN CHRIS!!!”

The subject at hand, in addition to a sprightly third grader racing up a field, is the transition from flag to tackle football– a discussion taking place on sidelines all over the country. As we approach Thanksgiving and football squeezes its way back on to center stage I am prepping for the debate.

As the mother of three boys who, like their dad, love all things football, I find myself between a rock and hard place on the topic. Given the proven long term effects of repeated blows to the head and body, I am mother bearishly opposed to my sons playing and glorifying professionals who excel at the sport. Yet in this age of incessantly streaming devices I love that there is an activity that binds my boys and family together.

A part of me also relishes how the ‘hard knocks’ nature of this particular activity chafes at the prevalent culture of coddled young millenials - and their helicopter parents. I know I’m not alone in seeing the benefits of a tough coach, team play and well honed lessons in learning how to fall and to get back up. As much as I hat to admit it at times, I understand why my husband references his football coach, teammates, success and failure on the field as the most formative, character building experiences of his life.

I did not grow up in a football family. I attended an all girls high school and while I noted Super Bowl Sundays as an occasion to enjoy bowls of chips, dips and entertaining commercials with my basketball loving dad and brothers, football carried little weight in my life experience. Until, as cliche as it sounds, I met a guy. While we were dating and the kids toddlers, however, Bill’s passion for football remained a minor detail and I readily joined him in admiring the agility of our son as he raced a foam ball into our living room’s end zone for hours.

“He’s going to be an awesome wide receiver or some other noteworthy position,” he’d say, scooping him up for a diaper change or feeding. I didn’t even respond because the very idea of this baby in pads and a helmet sounded ludicrous, particularly when the most pressing victory at the time was getting him to sleep.

Ten years later we have three boys who want nothing more than to run, catch, throw balls, score touchdowns and watch them being made over and over again. Our youngest, a nine-year-old ESPN addict, regularly offers an animated Monday morning report on every NFL player and team and the prospects for that night’s match up.

And as much as I rail against the sport’s dangers, I look forward to a big game on a Sunday afternoon, bodies strewn across sofas around a plate of nachos. In between plays we catch up on our week: the travel, practices, homework and tests that lie ahead. In a world that at times seems to do everything it can to pull families apart, this sport brings us together and for that I am grateful.

Yet, these days, you must be wary where and to whom you express this sentiment. Like any competitive profession, motherhood can be a cut throat business. And where we live a pro football stance can be met with looks of dismay, suspicion, and righteous speculation. A mother who sends her son out to play football – wow - has she not read the reports, seen the news coverage, poured over the scientific evidence? Does she read? In New York City the discussion is a non starter – but not all that different in its suburbs.

The other day as a mom relayed how much she loves her sons’ (grade 2 and 4) football coach and league, she quickly qualified her enthusiasm: “I’m from Wisconsin. We let our boys play tackle. … And they just love to play.”

Even though I’m from Queens (and read) my boys love to play as well. While I may not be ready to don a cheerleading outfit and pledge my enthusiastic support, I understand the draw. As a former college athlete, I admire the physical, mental and emotional prowess and practice successful plays and games entail. I appreciate the graceful arc of a well thrown ball, the incredible athleticism involved in a diving catch, the remarkable agility required of the cut and run. As a mom, I relish the smiles, the high fives, the palpable pride and joy my sons feel for themselves and their teammates when they play. And come Sunday afternoons I can’t help but question how I can condone watching the sport on TV while banning it from our own back yard?

As much as I wish he could play flag forever, I do wonder why we can’t at least extend the playing time– why is the transition to tackle an option for kids as young as six, seven and eight? A 2015 Boston University study of 42 former NFL players concluded a link between tackle football participation before age 12 and brain related impairments later in life. Why is this even a discussion? We do not permit the legal killing of brain cells with alcohol until the age of 21 why not establish similar age restrictions for football?

I understand that parenting, like marriage or any successful relationship, is about compromise, listening to and hearing the other out. At the same time, motherhood, is mostly about listening and then laying down the law. As an NFL doctor told Dr. Bennet Omalu, the man who first discovered CTE in the brain of Hall of Famer Mike Webster: “If 10 percent of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that is the end of football.” While I don’t know a mother who does not perceive the sport as dangerous, I also don’t know a football mom who would support an end to the sport entirely.

As the debate continues in our house and this mom tries to figure out exactly which law to lay down, maybe that NFL doctor, his colleagues and the powers that be at Pop Warner might consider raising the minimum age. How about a compromise boys – before basketball becomes the law of the land?

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