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.”
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.
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.