My son is a born kicker. From the first flutters in my tummy he hasn’t stopped. My husband and I can’t wait until he’s old enough to start playing sports. Not because we’re particularly athletic, but because we know he’ll be happier when he’s finally able to start running around and kicking the balls now hanging near his feet across the ground for miles. And catching and throwing them, for that matter. Why? Because if he doesn’t burn off some of his intense energy, he’s going to go insane and so are we.
That’s right: I can’t wait until my son can play football and soccer, the two scariest sports in the book.
Gasp! But concussions! Head injuries! Brain damage! Untimely death! Sports are evil and deadly and should be regulated to the point of banishment, right? As the little sister who grew up watching her brother play high school football, I understand the concern parents have with school sports. And as the girl who always picked the least vulnerable position in gym class, I sympathize with the concerns being raised about the dangers of too many head injuries. But as the product of two families loaded with sports players, I know there’s also a way to play to win.
My gut feeling tells me that the fears surrounding concussions in sports are largely fueled by a culture that seeks to eliminate competition, and craft both boys and girls into compliant desk jockey bureaucrats. Public schools are desk-based, recess-less, book-heavy trophy factories that hand out awards to anyone who signs up to participate in a sport. Combine this culture with the growing awareness of concussions in professional sports, and suddenly every kid who gets near a ball is risking his life.
As pediatric neurologist Dr. Steven Rothman pointed out in a recent New York Times op-ed, the paranoia surrounding high school sports doesn’t take into account that these kids aren’t career sports players. Their exposure to the field for a few months out of the year is far less than that of a professional player who has suffered repeated head injuries. He also points out that the American Academy of Neurology changed the definition of “concussion” to a term so benign that some high school players have suffered from the non-specific symptoms, like headache and sensitivity to light or sound, with no recent concussion at all.
Thanks to the paranoia-induced confusion over what exactly constitutes a concussion, the doctor has seen a number of high school athletes who never needed to set foot in his office. Meanwhile, more kids than ever are overweight and lacking in basic physical fitness. Male students are especially prone to being diagnosed with ADHD and drugged out of their vigorous, playful nature. Something isn’t adding up.
I hope my son will play sports and love them as much as his uncle, grandfather and great-grandfather did. Sure, I’ll be the watchful mom on the sidelines, scrutinizing those in charge like every other annoying concerned parent. I’ll also teach my son to be aware of the symptoms of a concussion or any other injury, so he can communicate his symptoms effectively should the need arise. Most of all, by encouraging him to play sports I’ll be teaching him some of life’s greatest lessons: play smart, play safe, and play to win.