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Mares: To Play Or Not

The Vermont state high school football championships are now history for another year – leaving fields and stadiums around the region echoing from shouts of victory and groans of defeat.

Professional football remains the most popular spectator sport in America. But clouds are appearing on the sport's horizon.

The National Football League has been caught up in domestic abuse scandals of prominent players. More significantly, the League had been forced to acknowledge the long-term physical and mental injuries to its players, and begin to pay for some of the game-related carnage.

So maybe it’s not surprising that a recent poll for the Rand Corporation found a significant decline in the number of parents who want their sons to play football, compared to soccer, basketball, baseball or track.
Now, I lived and thrived in the athletic machismo environment of Texas high school football. I started for three years. I still brag, fairly modestly, about my twice broken nose and 25 stitches from a time of no face guards.
And I was pleased when our second son decided to play football in a youth league and then again in high school. Throughout his play in this contact sport, he was adequately protected with equipment and coaching. His four year career was crowned with an undefeated season... and no injuries.

Still, you'd have to be in denial not to see a continuum from no-contact peewee football to the high commerce and high injury rates of professional players . The bruisers of college football and the NFL didn't come out of nowhere. They started in Pop Warner and American Youth Football leagues, where they were trained to endure pain, and to inflict it.
But today, fewer parents are willing to send their own flesh and blood into gridiron combat. Even at the NFL level, more and more people are wincing at video clips of the "best hits of the week." And a growing awareness of some ex-players' dementia and even suicides has had a slow but telling effect on the public's consciousness and conscience.
Economics columnist David Leonhardt of the New York Times suggests that public attitudes toward high school football may “undergo a massive shift sometime in the future," similar to changing attitudes about smoking, seat belts and even texting in cars. If science continues to reveal the real danger of brain damage among significant numbers of professional football players, the trickle of refugees from youth football could become a flood.

Even our son is beginning to wonder if he’ll be willing in 10 or 15 years to gamble his own son’s future on playing this exciting, but dangerous, game.

Writer Bill Mares of Burlington is also a former teacher and state legislator. His most recent book is a collection of his VPR commentaries, titled "3:14 And Out."
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