As any football enthusiast knows, the cooler days of late fall are made bearable when it signals that bowl games are coming soon. I parent two sports fans who love basketball in winter, baseball in summer, and are absolutely obsessed with football come fall.
Despite, or perhaps because of their fandom, I’ve paid close attention to the compelling and relentless case against tackle football. Growing concerns over long-term concussion risks has contributed to a steep decline in youth football participation, noted in the August 2019 Chicago Tribune headline, “Illinois high school football participation hits 26-year low as other sports grow in popularity.” And given the years I’ve spent in healthcare marketing, partnering with a large health system to develop a sports concussion program several years ago, I am more informed than most.
In August, my 5th and 7th grade sons started their first season of tackle football with the Glenview Junior Titans. This is something they’ve requested to do for years, and their dad and I countered by encouraging them play flag football for several years. Their intense interest in the "real" football, and my desire not to crush this dream, contributed to my decision to finally relent and let them try tackle.
The rational side of my brain recalled the work of physician leaders like Julian Bailes, MD, Chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at NorthShore University HealthSystem and a founding member of the Brain Injury Research Institute. The work he and others do has led to commitments by many football programs to limit head contact, create concussion protocols and staff the sidelines with athletic trainers with a goal to improve the safety of the sport.
As the season progressed, I realized the benefits of my sons’ participation in the football program far outweighed my initial concerns. With my boys entering their teens, I’ve heard a lot about growing concerns of isolation among youth as social media and YouTube replaces hanging out. A Pew Research Center 2019 study reports that adolescent males average more than three hours of screen time daily. As screen time is typically passive and often solitary, this was a concern of mine as well.
Football, on the other hand, is all about community. On and off the field, everyone matters. From the start of the season the Junior Titans create a strong sense of belonging and commitment among the players. At the Junior Varsity banquet in November Glenview Junior Titans Board President Jack Downing said, “Football creates character-building moments and teaches life lessons.” I’ve come to agree as my 7th grade son feels a sense of achievement he hasn’t in any other sport, and my 5th grader take pride in a game well played, regardless of outcome.
While the football program is a significant time commitment, it helped create a sense of discipline and a degree of structure to afternoons that would otherwise be spent battling over homework, music and screen time. A decision to empower the boys to choose to play tackle football was coupled with an emphasis on the importance of their commitment to other activities. They know mom and dad want them to remain committed to homework and music practice, and this motivates them to stayed engaged as a drop off in one area could impact another.
As we celebrated the season’s end in November, I found myself grateful for this newfound community. While I will never completely loose the feeling of angst when my child ends up on the wrong side of a tackle, I do look forward to cheering them on again next fall and perhaps a few other hesitant parents will consider joining me.
This post was initially written as an op-ed for the Glenview Lantern. As the sports editor was already writing a piece on the future of football, he interviewed me for this recent article.
For readers who know me well, you'll note the error in my marital status. A reasonable assumption given the very good co-parenting relationship I have with the boys dad.