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As we head into another fall sports season, there’s an effort underway to throw football out the window because of brain-related diseases later in some athletes’ lives.
The sport so loved and revered by generations of Americans might be nearing its own traumatic end – at least for high school and other youth football leagues.
Many mothers and fathers are worried their kid might develop Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy after experiencing concussions, severe or minor. It’s understandable they’re worried. Former NFL players’ struggles with brain disease are widely reported. If a parent chooses to keep their little guy or gal off the field, I get it.
But I think their nervousness is overblown and misses the benefits of youth football.
Football is a scary sport, and precisely because it’s so scary we need to make sure kids remain exposed to it. Soccer, basketball, baseball, volleyball, field hockey and other high school sports involve accidental collisions. But football, by definition, is a contact sport and pain is part of every play. And, to be effective, players must conquer their fear of pain.
I played on the golf team in high school, which involved absolutely zero contact. But my best friend played center on the football team, and I was friends with several other players. They were tough guys. I admired them. Everyone did.
Now that I’m 25 years out of high school, I look back and realize those football players were the bravest kids in the school. (I know, children battling cancer are truly more brave. But speaking here of typical kids, football players stand out.) They’re brave because they know they’re going to face pain. They’re going to get hit hard, sometimes by a blindside tackle or stiff arm they never see coming. They’re going to sprain, break and pull. It’s organized brutality.
So why should we save something that causes pain in the short-term and might cause lingering mental issues? Because life is tough, and we need tough kids growing into tough adults who can handle difficult times head on.
I wouldn’t say this if every football player developed CTE or dementia. Despite the dire warnings, relatively few develop problems. But the media latches on to those stories and we forget the overwhelming number of past players who go on to great lives in business and politics.
Life is pretty easy in America right now. The Trump Bump, which has turned into the Trump Jump, is benefiting many. Nationwide unemployment is at about 4 percent. The gross domestic product rose 4.2 percent last quarter. These are amazing numbers. Things are so good in fact, some can’t handle it and are trying to sow discord: Red. Blue. Black. White. Rich. Poor. It’s too bad folks can’t enjoy these good years without having to ruin them.
However, there will come a time when things turn and America faces real tests once again. War. Famine. Disease. Financial collapse. That’s when I’ll want people in charge who know how to take a hit and keep going. As silly as it sounds, that’s when I’ll want people in power, both in the business world and politics, who played high school football.
I recently saw a PBS documentary about children around the world suffering torturous rites of passage into manhood. As I watched, it struck me how American kids have few outlets where they are put through pain and come out better on the other side.
Most memorable from the documentary were two Amazonian jungle boys whose Satere-Mawe tribal elders forced their hands into mitts lined with bullet ants. These ants aren’t the kind that invade your kitchen counters. They were huge, had equally huge stingers and inflict the most painful, venom-filled stings in the insect kingdom. And the boys had to wear the mitts for 10 long minutes.
Most compelling, these two boys knew for years that they would eventually face the bullet ant mitts. I’m sure that prior knowledge provided a mental struggle, too.
American football at the high school level can’t compete with venomous ants in terms of pain, but both the jungle boys and our young football players share something: they learn to turn off that voice in their head that tells them to run away and cower. They face their fears. And by doing so, they’re toughened mentally and emotionally. I want kids like that growing into adults who will lead America in the years ahead.
Besides, if we nix high school football because of CTE concerns, we’ll have to snuff high school girls basketball, girls softball and girls volleyball. According to a 2017 report cited in the Washington Post, those three sports each reported more concussions than football.
John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.