Save the headbanging for teenagers

10/06/2010 4:51 PM |

As far as football goes, it was pretty much a routine “hit.” The ball carrier didn’t see the tackler until the last instant, and then the two collided at full speed, face mask to face mask.
The ball carrier got the worst of it. His “bell had been rung,” as they say in the sport, and he was escorted to the bench, where he remained, under close observation by his coaches, for the remainder of the game.
The following day, his doctor confirmed the preliminary diagnosis — it was a mild concussion — and advised that he sit out practices and games for the next two weeks.
All of which would have been pretty much routine if the ball carrier hadn’t been nine years old.
I started playing organized tackle football in junior high school and hung in there with the sport until my junior year in college, when I defected to the sport of rugby, which appealed to my sensibilities because it combined physical exertion with beer drinking. (Rugby was a club — that is, non-varsity — sport at my college, so we were allowed to tap a keg on the sidelines.)
Although I eventually fell out of love with football as a player, I covered the game as a sportswriter when I first got out of college, and have continued to follow college and pro football ever since. I am not, however, a fan of pee wee football, and that’s because the aforementioned nine year old is my grandson.
There has been a lot written lately about football-related head injuries — most notably the outstanding series of articles by New York Times sportswriter Alan Schwarz — much of it having to do with the long-term effects of such injuries, including loss of memory and concentration, speech impediments, headaches, depression and, in a few highly publicized cases, suicide.
I am not — repeat, not — suggesting that my grandson’s comparably minor injury will result in any such consequences, but I am suggesting that full-scale tackle football should not be played by eight and nine year olds. It’s just too early. Their bodies aren’t ready for the punishment and, I would argue, neither are their psyches. Most kids that age lack the aggressiveness that is fundamental to football. After all, we’re talking about a sport that is basically about knocking down other people or getting knocked down yourself.
If you want a kid that age to learn about football, why not start with flag football, which teaches most of the fundamentals and techniques without the bone-crunching hits that can lead to serious injuries?
Yes, I know the volunteers who coach the Peconic Panthers take great pains to protect their charges, and the players are weighed prior to each game to make certain they’re evenly matched physically. But that doesn’t change the fact that they face unacceptable (to me, at least) risks at an extremely vulnerable age.
It has been suggested by some extremists that tackle football should be phased out at all levels because of these risks. I am not among them. I’m relieved that responsible officials — from pee wee to the pros — have begun taking a serious look at the consequences of head injuries, and I think there always will be a place for tackle football in American society. But please, parents, wait at least until junior high school before allowing your kids to bang heads on purpose.
tgustavson@timesreview.com

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