Concussions have prompted many parents to question whether their sons should play high school football. A well known sportswriter and parent who was given nearly unlimited access to a high school team for a year shares the red flags he saw as well as the benefits of playing.
- Kostya Kennedy, author, Lasting Impact: One Team, One Season. What Happens When Our Sons Play Football
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16-44 High School Football
Nancy Benson: For most Americans, Friday night means the end of the workweek and the beginning of the weekend. But in some towns, Friday nights in the fall mean only one thing — high school football. It seems like everybody in town has something to do with the local team. At the very least, according to New York Times bestselling sports writer Kostya (Coast-Ya) Kennedy, they’re all in the bleachers to cheer the team on.
Kennedy: It can often be around the culture of the town, of the school. It’s a place to show your school spirit, your town spirit. Now in some towns, of course, this is much more prevalent than others. We know about Friday nightlife in Texas and many other places, too. It’s not true that every school has that kind of spirit. Actually, many don’t. Most fall somewhere in between. They have a level of spirit with a town that doesn’t necessarily come to a halt and everybody goes to the game, but it becomes sort of a meeting place and a place where people can find something in common and that’s pulling for their team on a Friday night or Saturday afternoon.
Benson: Kennedy had just about unlimited access to the New Rochelle, New York, high school football program for an entire season a couple of years ago. The result is the book, Lasting Impact: One Team, One Season. What Happens When Our Sons Play Football. And he says that obviously, some of the things that happen can be bad.
Kennedy: The injuries are too many to count. And some are just not that significant, but about eleven or twelve kids will die on average each year playing high school football. Now some of these are from heat exhaustion, some might result from a prior heart condition or other existing condition, and others simply come from getting hit the wrong way on a play or for the second time in a game, or any number of possibilities. However one looks at it, those numbers both as a raw number and as a percentage of players is much much higher than any other sport.
Benson: Injuries are the biggest reason many parents have doubts about letting their sons play football. Injuries come with the territory in a sport that’s designed to be violent. In fact, Kennedy says a lot of players like football for that very reason.
Kennedy: A lot of guys said to me also that, “Hey, it’s a way where you can be aggressive legally. You’re allowed to get your aggression out. Except for boxing there’s not a lot of ways that you can do that with this sort of imprimatur of it being okay. You can do that on a football field. It’s inherently a violent game; it’s inherently a game where people can get off some of their impulses, which can be a big thing for a young man.
Benson: Concussions are the injury we’ve heard the most about the last few years, and he says he heard the concerns of many parents about them. High school players are twice as likely to sustain a concussion as college players… And if they’re not treated, concussions can lead to a wide range of other problems later on, including depression, suicidal impulses, and dementia. But Kennedy says especially in football, it’s hard to know if someone’s had a concussion or not.
Kennedy: In other sports, such as hockey, soccer, usually when somebody suffers a blow that is concussive or potentially concussive, you the observer, the coach, the person in the stand, the trainer on the side can usually see that it has occurred. Somebody has fallen down or knocked heavily into someone on the other team. In football you may see that on a big open field hit, but you also may not. There are many hits on many plays where a concussion will occur that nobody could have possibly seen, however well intentioned they were from the outside, there’s so much going on at once away from the ball. So it’s very hard to know for sure that a concussion has occurred and by extension of that you’re relying very heavily on self-reporting.
Benson: Unfortunately, boys are unlikely to report they’ve taken a blow to the head and feel dizzy. So concussions are probably far more common than we know.
Kennedy: If you’re going to play four years of high school football chances are you’re going to get a concussion. It’s not guaranteed of course, but it’s pretty likely you should expect to get one. Now, getting a concussion does not lead to the kind of brain injuries and things that we’ve seen on the NFL level and the exposure to CPE, of course, it’s never good to have any kind of head trauma. But many people could get a concussion falling off your bike or in any sport or whatever it might be. If it’s treated correctly there’s no reason why you can’t heal and go ahead and be healthy and have no long lasting effects.
Benson: Kennedy says he saw some resentment among coaches that football has been vilified as a result of concussions. So does that mean our sons shouldn’t play football? Kennedy says “not necessarily.”
Kennedy: I think the biggest thing as a parent you really want to think about is, who are the coaches and what is the environment? Can we trust at least that the coaching staff and those around my kid and even the other players to some extent, are going to be vigilant about trying to diagnose and trying to report and address these concussions. Nothing is fail safe, but to me that’s the biggest factor. If you don’t feel comfortable for some reason that you have a coaching staff that is going to support finding out and addressing head injuries, then you have to really question whether you want to put your son in that environment.
Benson: However, along with the risk comes the reward. Kennedy says being on the football team provides players with the kind of brotherhood that they might not have anywhere else.
Kennedy: There’s needling. Guys are kind of riding each other a little bit, but pretty much if you’re playing on a football team, your teammates have your back. And if you play for a big school it’s nice to have that kind of backing and nice to feel that you are part of something.
Benson: Kennedy says high school football also provides a huge helping of life lessons.
Kennedy: It’s incredibly collaborative and incredibly dependent upon one another. The necessity for doing your job to help your team is raised to an extra level in football. Listen, if you’re playing baseball, say, and the left fielder drops the fly ball it’s not going to hit to the right fielder in the face. But if you’re playing football and you miss your assignment, well the guy behind you is going to get flattened. If you do your assignment correctly you’re going to take that physical punishment. This is something that really builds a lot between two people and specifically between two young men. I think that sort of togetherness, family atmosphere that’s born out of that hard work together is a big part of the appeal for a player.
Benson: Employers see the value, too. Surveys show they like to hire people who were football players in high school. So it’s a balancing act to decide if a child should play. The most important thing, Kennedy says, is to look at the structure of the program to see if coaches are responsible. If parents are comfortable with that… there are lots of reasons to play.
Kostya Kennedy invites you can find out more about the book Lasting Impact on his website… Kostya, that’s k-o-s-t-y-a-kennedy.com, or through a link on our website, radiohealthjournal.net.
Our production director is Sean Waldron.
I’m Nancy Benson.