In defense of football

This is the worst possible news for today’s parents, who often seek above all to guarantee the physical and psychological safety of their children. Children are being raised as if they’re fragile, in need of constant protection. For these (often upper-middle-class) parents, new information about football’s dangers makes their decision easy. Johnny can play basketball or soccer, but he can’t play football. Indeed, in just one year’s time, the percentage of Americans who said they wouldn’t let their children play football jumped nine points, from 22 percent to 31 percent.

Yet this mindset advances the great error of modern parenting — the belief that we should protect our kids from as much harm as we can. This short-sighted, fearful attitude ultimately damages the very children we so desperately safeguard. By taking risks, children learn other virtues, and when children are denied the opportunity to take risks, they often approach the world with a fear and timidity that can haunt them for life. What if my parents had kept me from the field near our house, protecting me from those many blows — endured without a helmet or shoulder pads or protection of any kind? Would I be the same person that I am today? Or would I perhaps be a bit more fearful, uncertain of my own physical courage and toughness?

Football, moreover, channels natural and desirable male risk-taking and aggression into a game bound by rules and governed by a code of conduct. In football, as in many sports, you learn self-sacrifice, including how to deny yourself and risk yourself for the benefit of your teammates. One doesn’t have to play football to learn those lessons, and playing football is not necessary to turn boys into young men, but the fear that motivates parents to reject football can indeed keep boys from growing into men.