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President Obama joined the concussion debate last week when he said, "If I had had a son, I'd have to think long and hard before I let him play football."

'Put me in, Coach, I’m ready to play'

by Sandy McAfee
Feb 6, 2013

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Former, current professional players and coaches share their thoughts

“The game is safer than it has ever been because we’re being proactive with head trauma.”
Merril Hoge, former NFL fullback

“I will not go through my life scared, and I don’t want my children to go through life scared. I started playing football when I was eight-years-old, and I would never not want to give that opportunity to my children.”
LaVar Arrington, former NFL linebacker

“With the new technology that they have, I think it’s more catered to preventing concussions. I would want my son to play football, but it’s something that’s not in his blood. It’s something that he doesn’t want to do right now and I’m not going to push him. But I think for all the kids out there who play, it’s a drive to make the game a safer game. Nobody wants kids to be hurt. Nobody wants adults to be hurt.”
Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback

“It’s such a great game because it teaches you about life and lessons and there’s so much to be gained by participating in football. It’s served us all well and just to continue to have this conversation and continue to talk about it and just do whatever we can to make it safer whether it be through rule change or research.”
Matt Birk, Baltimore Ravens center

“There’s no game like football. It’s the type of sport that brings out the best in you, it kind of shows you who you are… I think it’s a huge part of our educational system in this country and it’s going to be around for a long time.”
John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens head coach
In a health and safety update released by the National Football League last week, several players and coaches responded to comments made by Baltimore Ravens safety Bernard Pollard that he wouldn't let his kids play the sport. At the Super Bowl Media Day last week, Pollard said that he believes the league won't last and that he does not want his son playing football, as reported by USA Today and various media outlets.

The statements on the health and safety release sounded like refrains from the John Fogerty song that opens with the lyrics, "Put me in, Coach, I'm ready to play." 

Current and former members of the NFL echoed what a great game football is and said they would support their children if they wanted to play football.

“If he wants to play, he can play,” said Alex Boone, guard for the San Francisco 49ers, of letting his son play. “With little kids, you don’t have to really worry about them that much, but as you get older, you have to learn how to play the game a little better. I think the NFL is trying to do a great job with that right now, trying to teach the little kids to understand. It’s just football," emphasizing it's just a game. "It’s going to be physical,” he added.

“To each his own, I suppose,” stated Ross Tucker, former NFL offensive lineman, retired after playing for various teams. “But let me be real clear from the start: if I had a son I would absolutely let him play the sport of football. In fact, I would highly encourage it if he were so inclined.”

No empirical evidence is proving that parents are removing their kids from youth football teams. At this point in the debate, reservations about football are anecdotal. However, as more health risks come to light, speculation is forming about whether the game needs to change its rules to further protect current and future players. 

Sarah Fields, professor at Ohio State University’s sport humanities department, who specializes in the relationship between U.S. culture and sports, said the sport has already changed and will continue to do so, whether it be changing kick-off rules to prevent high-speed collisions or adjusting players' helmets and other equipment.

“You have to remember sports make rule changes all the time,” Fields said. “The NFL has changed dramatically. Even as I watched as a kid, hits that were legal then are not legal now. The game has adjusted and evolved, and I think it will continue to adjust and evolve."

Recent developments on cumulative concussion damage and brain trauma have increased awareness of the sport’s dangers, giving parents and players reason for caution. In January, researchers at the National Institutes of Health confirmed that former NFL player Junior Seau died from abnormalities consistent with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disease caused by blows to the head.

Though the long-term effects on concussions and brain trauma are not fully understood, research has recently linked the brain injury to depression, memory loss and CTE.

But researchers are still unsure how concussions suffered by children differ than those suffered by adults, said David Frim, a pediatric surgeon and professor at University of Chicago Medicine. Some studies show that a child’s brain, fully developed at age 18 in females and 21 in males, is more regenerative because it’s still growing. Therefore, those cells can be repaired after a head trauma. However, the regenerative quality could also be a bad thing, causing long-term damage to developing brain cells.

“At the end of the day, it’s not good to sustain a brain injury,” Frim said.

Frim said major symptoms of a concussion in a child include headaches, cognitive changes that can last for a long period of time, loss of energy and changes in mood. Young children can show different symptoms of a concussion than adults, including:

• Persistent headache
• Excessive crying
• Poor or low attention span
• Change in sleep patterns
• Change in nursing or eating habits
• Becoming upset easily
• Sad or lethargic mood
• Lack of interest in favorite toys or activities

More than 38 million boys and girls participate in organized sports in the U.S., and concussions are one of the most commonly reported injuries. Of sports and recreation-related concussions seen in emergency rooms, 65 percent occur in players aged 5-18, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Frim said that a majority of these injuries occur in contact sports, such as ice hockey, lacrosse, soccer, boxing and football.

“These kids really want to impress the coach because they want to be in the NFL, so they’re going to hit hard,” he said. “And the helmets are just as hard on 6-year-olds as they are on a 27-year-old NFL player. So the blow to the head is going to be pretty hard.”