As we all know, there is a very short, and long established, list of if issues one doesn’t discuss in polite company — namely, religion and politics. But based on my experience of the last year or so, I’m going to suggest another topic for inclusion in that pantheon — football; specifically the question of whether parents will allow their children to play.
First off, let’s get a few things out of the way. I am going to say “he” when referring to the player, though I know there are some girls who participate. And when I refer to football, I’m talking about tackle football, not flag (which has become popular as an alternative for younger children).
Why do I say the issue must now be grouped among the other volatile subjects? It is because, much like them, revealing your position on the topic often subjects you to a wider judgment by others. For example, if you are a Republican, many think you are cold and heartless towards the poor. If you are a Catholic, some think you are intolerant and take your marching orders from the Pope. And if you allow your children to play football, there are those who feel you are being reckless with their safety.
With this being the case, and much like when discussing those other subjects, passions can get heated as each side tries to make its argument — of course, never convincing the other side of anything. A pro-football parent takes data on the prevalence of CTE among NFL players and says, “My child will never play that long or at that level, so I don’t need to worry about it.” While an anti-football parent will look at the same data and say, “You see?! That’s why my child will never play football.”
Each side is trying to do what is right for their child. Of course, each child is different, along with each parent, so conclusions will differ. Each focuses on different aspects of safety, and overall positives and negatives of the sport in general; and each has a different amount of time to dedicate to participation (this is important for the all-consuming commitment football requires from about mid-July to early November).
While I am not going to dissect the issue in its totality here (of course), I do want to focus on one aspect that has relevance for business, leadership and life in general. It is the fear — which, in turn, prevents action or participation — that one cannot do or sanction something because of things that might happen. This is especially important to consider when the “might” in question requires an accumulation of occurrences.
Bear with me.
When I hear a fellow parent cite NFL CTE studies as a reason to forbid their child from playing football, I think the following: CTE does not happen overnight. CTE is the cumulative effect of brain trauma and concussions over years of playing.
First off, concussion awareness is now at an all-time high. I, for example, had to take an online concussion course in order to do any coaching for my children (along with a general certification on coaching put out by Rutgers University). The equipment is also better than ever (my son was just issued a brand new Riddell helmet with all sorts of inflatable padding inside), and many of the leagues for younger players have weight limits for both touching the ball and general participation. In my son’s league, the limit for handling the ball is 90 pounds and for 120 for participation.
So things are safer, but the main point is that though I sanction my son to play, I still have the full authority and ability to un-sanction it at any time. So if I see him taking too many hard hits or if he does get a concussion, I can shut the whole thing down. I can say, “Sorry bud, we gave it a try but it didn’t work out.” And I can do that for the season or for his whole football career. I hold the cards and never give up that final decision-making ability.
This is important to remember because it is possible that my son plays from third grade (now) through high school with nary a scratch. And what a deal that would be — to receive the tremendous upside a sport like football offers without suffering the costs (though I’ll surely trade some bumps and bruises).
Every single decision we make in life, for ourselves, our children, our work, is a risk-versus-reward balancing act. If I’d been too risk-averse and thought about all the things that could have gone wrong, I’d never have launched healthsystemCIO.com. To stay on the sidelines because of what could happen and assume you’ll have no chance for a course-correction is, likely, overestimating the risk side of the equation.
All we can ask of ourselves is to ponder the important decisions of life thoroughly, take all sides into account and neither be overly reckless nor cautious. We can, of course, talk to others for their feedback and advice, but if the topic proves too charged for some, we can just leave it out of polite conversation and keep our own counsel.