It’s the mentality in football: Playing hurt. Playing in pain. Playing with a concussion. NFL star Emmitt Smith recently said that he did it. His peers did it. And others will continue to do it. It’s part of the sport.
But it’s that part that’s also taking parents who had been sitting on the fence about letting their sons play football from “maybe” to “hell, no.”
“You do it for the sake of the game,” the NFL Hall of Famer and former Dallas Cowboys star reportedly told an audience recently at the Laura W. Bush Institute for Women’s Health Family, Football and Fame luncheon in San Angelo, Texas. “You do it for the sake of your teammates. You do it because it’s your team.”
His mindset was such that he once played in a game with a separated shoulder, simply ignoring the pain and continuing to take handoffs. Such bravado—machismo? stupidity?—is woven into the sport’s fabric. Staying on the field is more rule than exception.
“Should you be out there? The answer is probably not. Would I do it again? Yes, I would,” Smith said. “But that’s football. That’s the way I was raised. If you can’t play with pain, you can’t play the game.”
A growing number of parents, and even NFL players, have begun to question that approach, which can lead to mangled limbs, frayed joints, broken necks and scrambled brains. From the men who recently decided that early retirement beats a pro career, to the former players suffering from head trauma and suing the NFL in a class action concussion lawsuit, to the prep and youth organizations facing litigation of their own, football has become a tackling dummy.
The trend began about six years ago when Congress grilled NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on the league’s concussion policies. It started to bear fruit in November 2013 when ESPN reported that Pop Warner, the nation’s largest youth football program, saw participation drop by nearly 10 percent. Head injuries were thought to be the No. 1 reason.
“Unless we deal with these truths, we’re not going to get past the dropping popularity of the sport and people dropping out of the sport,” Dr. Juan Bailes, Pop Warner’s chief medical officer, told ESPN. “We need to get it right.”
For some parents, their kids’ desire to play football is a lost cause. For others, it’s not a problem at all. Family members can be at opposite ends of the spectrum.
“My [15-year-old] son has played every year since he was 12,” said Deborah Crimes of Upper Marlboro, Md. “Even though he’s had a concussion, he still plays. That didn’t taint me. I know things happen with kids.
“But my sister won’t let her sons play,” Crimes continued. “They have played soccer, baseball and basketball, but she won’t allow football. The principal and football coach are trying to recruit my youngest nephew right now, and she’s not having it.”