Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt invited the coaches and athletic directors from Harvard University, Princeton University and Yale University to the White House. The group discussed ways to improve the game of football and make it safer for players. In the early twentieth century football was vastly different, but equally dangerous, as the modern game. In 1905 alone at least 18 players died of football related injuries. In an era in which competitors did not wear proper padding or protective equipment, players were often kicked in the head or stomach causing internal injuries or concussions to the brain. Football was more akin to rugby than it is to the game millions of people watch today. Today, more than a hundred years after Roosevelt decided the game should feature a forward pass to reduce injuries and recommended the implementation of helmets, the game is still a violent one.
This has led to a question many parents struggle to answer. Should you let your own children play football? While this is a simple yes-or-no question, no matter which decision you make, there are many internal and external factors that affect one’s judgment. Factors such as social pressure and a possible major financial gain are often-cited reasons for allowing children to play football. Parents’ heuristic biases as well as the positive developmental benefits that children can obtain through playing football are factors that impact parents’ judgment. The obligations of a parent and the trade-offs of seeing your child succeed and flourish in the short term or long term also come into play. All of these factors make the decision of whether or not to let your children play football a complex one.
First, consider some statistics that are crucial to think about when making this decision. In recent years, countless studies have published data pertaining to head and brain injuries as a result of football concussions. Some of the noteworthy statistics are as follows:
-Per the Southwest Athletic Trainers Association (SATA), 15.8% of football players who sustain a concussion severe enough to cause loss of consciousness return to play the same day.
-The SATA also reported that 50% of Second Impact Syndrome Incidents—brain injury caused from a premature return to activity after suffering an initial concussion—result in death.
-75% of people who play tackle football at any level obtain a concussion.
Recently, the narrative on head injuries in football has changed. Getting your “bell rung” never used to be considered a big deal, but the research on Second Impact Syndrome changed all that. Former New York Giants linebacker (1976-88) Harry Carson said on letting his grandchild play football. “ I want him to be intelligent. I want him to be brilliant; I want him to be able to use his brain and not his brawn.” Carson and many other former players feel on a daily basis the effects of playing football. Their constant physical pain, as well as knowledge of statistics like the ones above, are the reasons for their thoughts on not allowing their offspring to play football.
Just this past September, Isaiah Langston, a 17 year old football player from North Carolina, collapsed on the field and died shortly after. A few days after the Langston episode, Demario Harris Jr., another high school football player, collapsed and died after a football game. It was later determined he was playing with a brain hemorrhage and had sustained an undiagnosed concussion. There are countless additional stories similar to that of Langston and Harris Jr. For many parents, medical statistics coupled with tragic anecdotes like those of Langston and Harris Jr. are the reasons they would never allow their children to play football and be put at such risk. For people like Carson the data outweighs any heuristic bias he may have.
Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Hardy Nickerson
There are some who hold the opposite belief. Former NFL linebacker Hardy Nickerson still believes the benefits of playing football trump the long term medical risks. Nickerson is a spokesman for USA Football, a national organization that promotes youth football. It is not surprising that when asked to comment on letting children play the game he spoke of the benefits: perseverance, teamwork and resiliency, to name a few. USA Football’s website states that “by playing this sport, young athletes learn football’s timeless qualities of leadership, responsibility, perseverance, and teamwork.” It goes on to add that, “football introduces young players to new social groups” and that “research shows athletes tend to have higher levels of self-esteem and lower levels of depression. To children, though, the game is about fun, friendships and camaraderie. It’s about achieving success of learning from failure then lining right back up to try again.” One of the main reasons why parents allow their children to play is the developmental benefits that their children may obtain by playing. These benefits such as confidence, hard work, and resilience are all qualities that not only improve one’s play on the field, but also the child’s social life and academic success.
USA Football omits data pertaining to concussions and chooses not to talk about the quantitatively established risks of playing football at any level. There is no mention of Second Impact Syndrome, of the correlation between head injuries and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease of the brain, and the impact of physical wear and tear on one’s body, all of which contribute to shortening one’s life span. Rather, USA Football tends to rely on conjecture to make their argument. USA Football does not present medical statistics, but rather relies on statements that present the game in a positive light. This is a form of both selectivity bias and advocacy bias. USA Football chooses to cite research about higher levels of self-esteem rather than research about concussions. Additionally, all of the benefits they bring up can be obtained from playing football, but they can also be obtained from playing other sports such as baseball, basketball, tennis, or soccer.
The decision to allow children to play football is ultimately the parents’. A complicated decision to allow their loved ones to play a dangerous game is full of conflicting internal and external factors. In Drew Westen’s book, The Political Brain, Westen writes, “The political brain is an emotional brain. It is not a dispassionate calculating machine, objectively searching for the right facts, figures, and policies to make a reasoned decision.” While Westen specifically focuses on politics, there are similarities to football in that both can be viewed as a competition between different parties each trying to best the other. Westen’s remarks raise an issue that many are hesitant to admit. We are not objective calculating machines. Even though people may use statistics to make their decisions, the statistics they cite may be used to reinforce their prior opinions which were formed because of biases in the first place. The search for data is not an objective one and often our own biases affect our decision making processes.
Questions about letting their children do something they enjoy strongly plays on the emotional heart strings of parents. As Westen writes, “when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins” Of course, parents care about their children’s health and care about their children’s well being. When they see their children having fun, gaining confidence, exhibiting hard work and toughness, all qualities Nickerson cited, they have a hard time thinking about the possible long term effect that playing football might have. They see the benefits in front of them and forget that 75 percent of people that play tackle football obtain a concussion, and overlook the effects that having a concussion might have on school, development, and the child’s future well-being. For many parents, “emotions have much more power to affect reason” than reason does to affect emotion. This leads to a dilemma for parents. Parents can allow their children to play football and, in turn, see their children benefit developmentally, thrive socially, and possibly financially ( as we will discuss later) and take the risk of potential detrimental medical consequences. Or, on the other hand, they may prohibit them from playing, realizing that their denying permission might hinder their children from fully developing socially, decrease the possibilities of future financial success, limit their being socially accepted, but know that their children will not face any possible medical repercussions later in their lives because of football.
Former San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Steve Young
Steve Young made seven Pro Bowls and won three Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers. He is widely acknowledged as one of the best quarterbacks ever. Young, now retired, was asked by PBS.org about letting his children play football. He said, “As long as I know the assumption of the risk and I understand it, I can make what can be a rational decision.” He adds, “I would [let his children] – [if they were] well coached, well protected. For other reasons... It’s just there is all kinds of other challenges. But young kids, well coached, protected, proper attention to the issues, yeah, I’d let my son play for sure.” A few things jump out about Young’s reasoning for allowing his son to play. One, he assumes that just because he knows the risks and understands them, it means he can make a rational decision. This is, of course, not true. In his mind it may be rational, but his personal biases influence what he comprehends and understands. His own experiences playing football affect his opinions on his children playing football and that is problematic when thinking about if it is truly rational. More importantly, he uses the phrase, “For other reasons” when rationalizing why he would let his children play football. One can logically assume these other reasons might be gaining confidence, learning how to work as a team, learning hard work, being resilient and also in the particular case of Young watching his son enjoy the game that was integral to his own success. As a result, he over-estimates the benefits of football because he himself achieved great success at the highest level. Young has his own thoughts and principles about the game, which make his decision to allow his children to play football seem like the proper decision.
Robert Nozick, a 20th century philosopher once wrote, “Principles constitute a form of binding. We bind ourselves to act as the principles mandate.” To Young, his principles and his “reasons” for allowing his children to play football are not based on statistics. That is why Young’s seemingly rational logic is not necessarily rational. Rather, Young’s decision making process is cluttered with heuristic bias and benefits that Young deems are worth obtaining through football, despite the possible long-term medical risk. Nozick writes, “Rationality in belief and action depends upon some self-consciousness in judging the process by which we come to have our reasons.” Young’s decision seems rational to himself, because his self-conscious decision making process is based on his reasoning. But its irrationality comes from the fact that Young minimizes the possible long term medical effects and emphasizes the emotional benefits. In Al Gore’s book, “ The Assault on Reason”, Gore writes that, “If a subsequent experience is even superficially similar to a traumatic memory it can wield incredible power over emotions and can trigger the same fear responses evoked by the original trauma.” This concept is true of a non-traumatic experience as well. A future positive experience similar to a previous positive memory can lead to power over emotions and can make the new experiences feel even better. Young feels strongly about his children playing, because it was such a positive experience for him.
Another factor that influences parents’ decisions when deciding whether to allow their children to play football is the ability to see the physical benefits of them playing football in the present and not see the onset of possible long-term health risks. Parents watch their children enjoy themselves on the field, notice that they are more confident with friends, working harder in school, and have higher self-esteem. Yet, they cannot detect that their child’s brain is slowly being impacted as a result of the many collisions to the head their child is taking by playing for their favorite team. As Daniel Kahneman, a professor of Psychology at Princeton University writes in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, “we often fail to allow for the possibility that evidence that should be critical to our judgment is missing—what we see is all there is.”
The biggest conundrum in the discussion of risk versus reward comes when considering the possible financial gain a child, and consequently a family, might have when the child plays football.
In 2013, there were approximately 27,000 football scholarships given out by Division I programs. While not every scholarship equals the full cost of tuition, most cover all if not almost all costs the student-athlete might incur to attend the university. In 2011, Dr. Patrick Rishe, a professor of economics and business at Walker University in St. Louis, calculated the net value of attending schools in the AP Top 25, such as USC, the University of Oklahoma, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Alabama, and University of Oregon on a football scholarship. After calculating either in-state or out of state costs for a student to attend the four year institution and adding that to a mid-level career salary, plus the value of a four year college degree, he determined that the value of the football scholarship from those schools exceeded $2 million. Of course, that assumes the student-athletes graduate. However, even in the case of many who do not graduate. but instead chose to go to the NFL, they make millions anyway.
This potential financial benefit often leads parents to allow their children to play football despite the inherent long term health risks. “The combination of loss aversion and narrow framing is a costly curse.” This narrow-framing choice tends to lead to brain damage when the student-athlete is in their 40’s or 50’s. Kahneman writes early in his book, “As we shall see, it [System 1] sometimes answers easier questions than the one it was asked, and it has little understanding of logic and statistics.” An easier question our instinctual mind might answer is does football have benefits, whereas the question we should really ask is whether our children should play football.
For many parents the social pressure of whether to let their children play leads to biased decisions. Consider the town of Massillon, Ohio where every Friday night in the fall 16,000 people file into Paul Brown Tiger Stadium to watch Massillon Washington High School’s football team. The town’s population is a mere 32,149 people which means half the town shows up to the game. To further emphasize how important the football program is to the town’s people, Massillon Washington High School is now looking for a new head football coach and is currently interviewing assistant coaches employed at the Ohio State University, Youngstown State, and Liberty State University. For many parents in Massillon, having their son play high school football is the socially-approved norm and there is social pressure on parents to let their children play. There is an inherent heuristic bias. As a parent, if you played high school football and remember the positive memories of playing in front of the town, your own experiences will lead to bias in judgment, “and the prevalence of bias in human judgment is a large issue.” The median household income in Massillon is a mere $36,000. As a result, the lure of playing football and making millions of dollars is even more attractive for both the child and their parents. Football can serve as a way to advance for many people in Massillon which is another factor when considering the social and economic pressure parents face when making this decision.
As a result of these several factors impacting parents’ judgments, it is hard to have an unbiased opinion when deciding whether to let your children play football. There is inherent social pressure, the possibility of major financial gain and immediate developmental benefits. However, the growing body of medical research looms large over the parents who choose to make this decision and the heuristic biases of the parents come into play. Either way, football is still the most popular spectator sport in the United States and its games are the most watched TV programs. Football games make up 49 of the top 50 most watched shows every year and the Super Bowl has more viewers than any other show in TV history. However, as more parents seriously question the different factors involved in allowing their child to play football, don’t be surprised if these numbers change.
Zezima, Katie. "How Teddy Roosevelt Helped save Football." Washington Post. May 29, 2014. Accessed December 25, 2014. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2014/05/29/teddy-roosevelt-helped-save-football-with-a-white-house-meeting-in-1905/.
Harry Carson, interviewed by Michal Kirk, PBS.org, Pbs.org, September 4th, 2013.
Ann-Gooden, Stacy. "3 Football Deaths in a Week: Would You Let Your Kid Play?" BabyCenter Blog. October 14, 2014. Accessed December 23, 2014. http://blogs.babycenter.com/mom_stories/10052014should-parents-think-twice-about-allowing-kids-to-play-football/.
Meredith, Janis. "7 Ways Sports Can Teach Your Child to Give | Youth Football | USA Football | Football's National Governing Body." 7 Ways Sports Can Teach Your Child to Give | Youth Football | USA Football | Football's National Governing Body. May 14, 2014. Accessed December 22, 2014. http://usafootball.com/blogs/benefits-of-football/post/8628/7-ways-sports-can-teach-your-child-to-give-.
Ann C. McKee, “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in Athletes: Progressive Tauopathy following Repetitive Head Injury,” J Neuropoathol Exp Neurol. 68, n. 7 (2009): 709-710.
Drew Westen, The Political Brain, (New York: Public Affairs, 2007) , xv.
Al Gore, The Assault on Reason ( New York: Penguin Press, 2007), 28.
Steve Young, interviewed by Jim Gilmore, PBS.org, PBS.org, March 27, 2013.
Robert Nozick, The Nature of Rationality, ( New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1993) , 10.
Daniel, Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), 87.
Rishe, Patrick. "Value of College Football Scholarship Exceeds $2 Million for College Football's Top 25." Forbes. August 21, 2011. Accessed December 25, 2014. http://www.forbes.com/sites/prishe/2011/08/21/value-of-college-football-scholarship-exceeds-2-million-for-college-footballs-top-25/5/.
"Massillon, Ohio." (OH) Profile: Population, Maps, Real Estate, Averages, Homes, Statistics, Relocation, Travel, Jobs, Hospitals, Schools, Crime, Moving, Houses, News, Sex Offenders. Accessed January 6, 2015. http://www.city-data.com/city/Massillon-Ohio.html#b.