Time for a close look at football

We need to look closely at kids playing football. Every NFL or college season, as I sit down to watch games on TV, I’m filled with mixed feelings. And I know I’m not the only one.

A wide receiver makes a leaping one-handed catch over the middle. Watching it happen in front of your eyes, the moment almost hypnotizes you.

You wonder if he’ll hang on to the ball — and then wham! A strong safety drills him in the side and the ball soars out of the area. The receiver then lands on his back and his helmet-cradled head slams into the turf. It was a clean hit, but it had a devastating effect.

The receiver slowly shakes out the cobwebs and just as slowly gets to his feet. He makes it a couple of steps and then drops to his knees. Eventually, he’s helped to the sideline by the athletic trainers, then carted to the locker room to be evaluated.

If you’re a fan, chances are the first reaction you had on the hit was “That was awesome!”

Then when you see the guy carted off, you’re probably wondering what’s going on with him before the game resumes. Then you’re back to focusing on the next play.

For me, though, as much as I try to focus on what’s going to happen next, in the back of my head, I’m hoping that the guy isn’t seriously hurt.

It’s even worse when kids are playing. Since becoming a writer, I’ve watched high school players and even middle school players stumble their way off the field after a brutal hit and each time I hope that his (or her) career isn’t over. And not just their athletic one.

There’s currently a bill in the Illinois Legislature that will prevent kids under age 12 from playing tackle football. It just passed a House of Representatives committee Wednesday and will now advance to the full House.

California, New York and Maryland have also proposed banning tackle football for kids under a certain age. Maryland actually wants to ban tackle football up to age 14.

Seeing that bill move forward got me thinking. Should Michigan do the same? Just like football as a whole, this idea left me with mixed feelings. Normally when something like this comes up, I tend to lean toward the side of letting each parent or kid decided for themselves. If the kid really wants to play football and the parents are OK with it, I’m normally fine with that. After all, it’s not my body that’s going to get beaten up.

However, with each passing football season, I’ve started to lean more toward the idea of looking out for every kid. With more and more research coming out about CTE — chronic traumatic encephalopathy — and it makes me wonder if it’s worth it for kids to even try to play football at a young age.

An article by Reuters said that in 2017, a Boston University study found that boys who start playing football before age 12 may be at increased risk of behavioral and mood problems later in life compared to ones that start football later.

That same study also found that youth football players have 250 head impacts per year, which is a lot for a kid who probably spends his free time playing Madden on his Xbox One.

The argument can be made that there is still research yet to be made on CTE with kids and it’s important that more gets developed.

At the same time, though, it has been shown that your brain starts to develop more complexities between the ages of 10 and 12 and is at high risk for physical injury during this growth period, so why potentially put your child in harm’s way by playing tackle football, even for just a couple of years?

Another study, this one by Wake Forest and cited by the New York Times, found that boys between ages 8 and 13 who played just one year of football already had decreased function in parts of their brains.

It makes you consider if it’s worth having a kid already set himself back in the slim hopes of making the NFL or even playing Division I college football.

Progress has already been made with Pop Warner football banning kickoffs and cutting down the amount of contact in practice, but should things go further than that?

Efforts are also being made to emphasize the play of flag football for kids instead of the tackle version, which probably is a smart idea.

I’m not sure if state legislatures should get involved in the process, but the idea of kids playing tackle football needs to be closely examined by communities and certain football organizations. If, ultimately, it’s decided by schools or towns that tackle football should continue, so be it. But I’m hoping that everyone involved takes the matter seriously.

The world of football is changing, and 20 years from now it may look vastly different from what it does today.

If we don’t start switching our way of thinking, it’ll be too late for a lot of kids who just don’t know better and want to chase their dreams.

Those dreams shouldn’t end before they get a chance to start.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.