“Would You Let Your Kid Play Football?” – The Question Lots of People Are Asking

We here at Midwest Sports Fans know better than anyone about how Jay Cutler dominates on the football field. But earlier this week Kristin Cavallari, Cutler’s fiancee, cast doubts on whether the couple’s son, Camden Cutler, will learn his father’s trade.

Cavallari told DNAinfo.com Chicago on Monday, “I will try to steer Cam in a different direction, maybe a sport that isn’t so aggressive.”

Will Camden Cutler dominate the NFL like his father? Not if mom has anything to say about it. (Photo from Twitter)

Will Camden Cutler dominate the NFL like his father? Not if mom has anything to say about it. (Photo from Twitter)

In an interview with The New Republic this week President Obama said, “I’m a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football.”

(As of 2010, more than 1,500 girls played high school football, most but not all of them placekickers. So this issue isn’t necessarily limited to families with sons. The President’s comments also raise the question of whether it is ethical to enjoy watching a sport that you wouldn’t let your own children play, an issue I’ve dealt with before.)

The question of whether a parent should allow his or her child to play football seems to be coming up a lot, especially with this being Super Bowl week.

So, would you let your kid play football?

Football is far from the only dangerous sport. Just about every sport and other physical activity carries the risk of injury. Giving one’s children a risk-free childhood is impossible, and going to extreme lengths to shield a child from danger likely will do more to hinder his or her development than a sports injury would.

But not all injuries and ailments are created equal.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a condition that causes dementia, depression, aggression, disorientation, and impeded speech. CTE affects two groups of people: the elderly and those who have taken repeated blows to the head.

A recent study by the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) examined 68 deceased athletes and military veterans. 49 of the 68 cases involved football players, 15 of whom never played professionally and 6 of whom never played past high school. And as young athletes get bigger, faster, and stronger, it is likely that the prevalence of CTE among teens will only increase.

Former NFL stars Andre Waters, Dave Duerson, and Junior Seau, all of whom committed suicide in recent years, were all diagnosed with CTE after their deaths. Last week, for the first time, researchers at UCLA were able to detect the protein that causes CTE in living former football players, among them former Vikings linebacker Fred McNeill.

Former Viking Fred McNeill is struggling with dementia, possibly related to CTE. (Photo by Getty Images)

Former Viking Fred McNeill is struggling with dementia, possibly related to CTE. (Photo by Getty Images)

It should be noted that the suicide rate among NFL players is lower than the rate among the general population.

And though we have no way of knowing how many people who played football in high school or later have CTE or another chronic neurological disease, it is likely only a small minority. Further research is needed to assess how widespread the problem actually is.

But the risk of developing CTE, however big or small it may be, seems to be unique to football and ice hockey, at least among sports and activities in which young people often participate. (It has also been found in professional wrestlers and military veterans.)

Even if the risk is slight, parents must decide if it is one worth taking.

Unlike a broken bone or a torn ligament, CTE affects the very essence of one’s being. Chronic aches and pains can make life miserable, but confusion and memory loss take misery to another level, both for the victim and for his or her loved ones.

It would be unfair to single out football (or, for that matter, ice hockey) as a dangerous sport. But it is important for parents to recognize the particular risk posed by a sport in which an athlete may suffer repeated blows to the head.

I wouldn’t answer the question “Should you let a kid play football?” for anyone else. I’m not sure that I’ve answered it for myself. But because of what we know about CTE, it is a question that deserves serious consideration and should not be answered in haste.


Would you (or will you) let your child play football?

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About Josh Tinley

Josh Tinley writes the Away From The Action column at Midwest Sports Fans, covering all aspects of sport aside from what actually happens on the field, court, or track. Josh grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from the University of Evansville and Vanderbilt Divinity School. He is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports and the managing editor of LinC, a weekly curriculum for teens that explores the intersection of faith and culture. Josh lives outside Nashville with his wife, Ashlee, and children, Meyer (7), Resha Kate (5), and Malachi (3). He will not allow himself to die before the Evansville Purple Aces make another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Follow him on Twitter @joshtinley or send him an e-mail.


  1. Your kid probably is not good enough to play at the level where concussions will take their toll nor play long enough for them to mount up. And the character and sense of unity, the ability to work that is learned, the overcoming of fear and pain inherent in football, and not being afraid of other men, not being a nerd, being accepted socially by the dominant boys in school, to me, all make playing football worthwhile for most boys.

    The acid test was my wife. I had said when my son was a couple of years old in passing that he should play football and being the good feminist she was, she lit into me about forcing a boy into gender roles and macho sports. He came one day at 8 years old and said “I want to play football” with no prompting from me. She had to let him because that is the suburban mother ethic. And when she saw the effect in had on him, she was hooked. He had been leaning towards the skater kids and after playing football she said “He became a kid”, I guess meaning normal.

    The next year she said “You’re gonna play football this year right?”. He said “I don’t think so” and the feminist mother who opposed forced gender roles and macho sports said …

    “Oh I think so.”

    So needless to say, he played. The biggest boosters of youth football and its most vocal supporters are mothers.

    So I doubt that most of those boys would ever play varsity football in high school as starters. They might play, they might suit up, go to practice, play on junior varsity or as backups on the varsity and that is the level where injuries can occur, and most who play never sustain anything more than bumps and bruises, or the occasional cut.

    But the lessons learned are huge and life long. The esteem gained never leaves a boy. And that physical training at that time in the development of boys provides a basis that stays with him for life and keeps him from every being an obese youth and the associated social problems associated with it. It teaches social cooperation between men that is conducive to success at work. I always say “As you build it, it is built”. Football is intense and it changes something in a boys muscle development and bone development. It gives an agility and a grace that stays with you for life. You can always tell a basketball player that also played football. They are less gawky and move better. And the best thing about football is that young boys are busy doing something constructive from the end of school until parents get home. The key to raising boys is mostly keeping them out of trouble until they mature. Football goes a long way to helping with that. It also provides that one day a week when that boy is the focus of his family. Even if the parents are divorced, it still can be a unifying moment when warring parties put the battle aside for the game time. And makes that boy feel special within his family group.

    I would say the risk of injury is very small price at a small probability compared to the benefit to the boy and to his parents.

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