The Coach Says He’s ‘Built for Football.’ His Parents Worry About C.T.E.

By | September 23, 2018

A 15-year-old high school football player made a play and was tackled. He walked off the field and didn’t recognize his own mother, who snapped his photo.

David Gavigan, 15, just after suffering a concussion on the football field.CreditCourtesy of Kim Gavigan

“I thought he was looking tough,” Kim Gavigan said of her son David, “but he didn’t really know who I was.” It was the second concussion of his short career (the first was at age 8); soon after, he quit the sport.

As football season gets underway in high schools and youth leagues across the United States, communities are gathering in their stadiums to cheer and enjoy the sense of togetherness.

But overshadowing it all is the threat of brain injury (and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E.) linked to taking hits during football and the angst many parents feel about deciding whether their children should participate.

We asked parents, via an unscientific survey, to tell us where they stand on the subject of youth tackle football and heard from dozens. Most said that the research on or personal experience with head injuries had compelled them to forbid their children to play.

But the pressure to participate can be intense, especially on boys who are big for their age and even on those who are small.

Here is a selection of submissions from parents reflecting on how their boys’ sizes, norms of masculinity and tradition affected their decision. They have been condensed and edited.

Please use the comments to tell us about your experiences with the pressures boys face to play tackle football and whether you think the risk is worth it.

Children who play football before the age of 12 have a higher rate of cognitive and behavioral problems later in life, according to a study by researchers at Boston University. A study in the journal Brain found evidence of the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., in teenage athletes who sustained head impact injuries.

I have a 13-year-old and an 11-year-old boy and I finally let my 13-year-old play last year. He is big for his age and about the size of a high school student. I’m more comfortable with him playing, though it still bothers me.

But my 11-year-old is only 85 pounds and would play positions that I have seen get clobbered the most — running back and receiver. I don’t know that I will ever be comfortable letting him play tackle.

The real difference between playing tackle football versus flag football is not the skills learned, but the social issues. My kids have repeatedly been called wimps and not “real men” over the years because they have played flag versus tackle.

I think safety for our kids dictates they shouldn’t play tackle until at least age 13 or 14. But it will be a very hard sell because of the social bias in our country that “real men” are tough and play tackle football. — Vicki Froslee, Andover, Minn.

Kasen Bryant, 12, far right, plays flag football in Oklahoma. His mother, Amanda, will not allow Kasen or his three brothers, Kale, 14, Knox, 10, and Krews, 8, to play tackle football.CreditCourtesy of Amanda Bryant

I am the mother of four sons; we live in Oklahoma, football country. Three of our boys love football and ask to play tackle. In our town they can start at 5 years old. We have opted to play flag football only, due to the risks of concussion.

We face a lot of ridicule from friends and relatives, but we cannot in good conscience let our boys play a game so inherently dangerous. The scientific evidence of the damage done by C.T.E. is too strong to ignore. We will never let our children play tackle ball. — Amanda Bryant, Norman, Okla.

C.T.E. can develop years after an athlete stops taking knocks to the head. It can cause memory loss, cognitive problems and dementia.

But under pressure from a persistent coach who pursues their sons even when they discourage the sport, some parents relent. Other parents embrace football without giving the risk a second thought.

Carson Harkins, 17, began playing football in his senior year at Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, Ohio.CreditWalter Harkins

My 17-year-old son has participated in team activities since elementary school, but things like the chess team and debate team. Never did I think in a million years that he would join the football team in his senior year in high school.

The coach reached out to him over the summer and asked him to join, and I have to believe it was because of his size — 6-3 and just over 200 pounds — but I also wonder if it’s because of low participation due to the risk of injury.

I expressed my concern about injury to him and basically begged him not to join the team, but ultimately let him make the decision for himself. He started in his first-ever game last week and I was on edge the entire time.

I have to hope that nine football games over the course of his life won’t have a negative impact on his health, but I can’t deny the absolute fear that I’ll have every minute that he’s on the field. — Amy Harkins, Columbus, Ohio

My son didn’t ask to play football. I made him. He is a freshman, and I insisted that he play a fall sport in order to make his transition to high school easier. He is a big kid, not built for speed, so he is not cross-country or soccer material. He is built for football.

His pediatrician believed, given today’s focus on head safety, football was no more dangerous than any other contact sport at this level — soccer, basketball, etc. And I agreed with him that football carried no more risk of injuries than soccer or lacrosse. Carla Dauphin, Wilmington, Del.

Spencer Pisnanont, 12, plays hockey and lacrosseCreditCourtesy of John Pisanont

Concussions are a major concern and have kept my son out of playing tackle football. I’ve told him that if he were larger relative to his peers, I don’t think I would have the same problem with it.

The last two years, I’ve been telling him to eat more and try to bulk up or get taller, but it hasn’t worked. — John Pisnanont, Ridgewood, N.J.

The sport remains America’s most popular, but fewer children are turning out to play it, with participation falling nearly 5 percent since 2008, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Matthew Palmer, 8, plays baseball as well as soccer. CreditCourtesy of Matt Palmer

My 8-year-old is the tallest, strongest and most powerful kid in his class and on his soccer and baseball teams. If ever a kid were “built for football,” it is my son.

My wife is a pediatric nurse who has worked in pediatric intensive care units, emergency departments, special procedure, and surgical units. She has seen the devastation a head injury can cause to a child, and to his or her parents.

The fact that our son already struggles with dyslexia and mood disorders makes her even more fearful of what a brain injury could do to him. She is adamant that he will not play football.

I view it as inevitable that he likely will, but we have agreed that we will not begin to entertain the discussion until he is at least 14 years old. We both kind of hope in the next few years he will develop different interests.

I have loved watching football for years, but never played. It is something that my son and I enjoy doing together, rooting for the Packers and the Utah Utes. My love of the game has caused some conflict in terms of why he isn’t allowed to play. He doesn’t understand how I can love a game so much that I won’t let him play. — Matt Palmer, Salt Lake City

Teshale Kelly, 12, making the referee work during a lacrosse game in Vermont.CreditSandy Brenen

My son, who has always excelled at soccer, has realized he’d also excel at football. His friends and physical education teachers have been trying to convince him to switch to football, and he wants to.

He’d be an awesome wide receiver with his speed and athleticism. I have given him the option to be a field goal kicker, since it’s not unheard-of for them to be selected from the soccer team, but he wants touchdown glory.

I had been considering wavering on my anti-football resolve, but the brain studies shut the door on that. I remind him that his brain is the best thing he has going for him.

It has been difficult for me to tell my son that he can’t play football because he displays great talent for the sport. He’ll be a huge asset to the soccer team, but soccer games don’t fill the stands. I have to keep convincing myself I’m making the best decision I can. — Karen Kelly, Camillus, N.Y.

Some states would like to suppress youth participation in tackle football even more. Five states have introduced legislation, with one bill — in New Jersey — remaining active.

The first few weeks of youth football are spent just learning how to properly tackle to avoid head injury. Helmets are replaced every year. Coaches take concussion training. As long as my son enjoys being out there for any of his sports, he will do them. I read the studies, but it’s just a risk and a risk doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. We take risks every day.

All fall we spend at the football fields; my 8-year-old plays and my two daughters cheer. It’s a family day at the fields. The organization is a feeling of community and it’s sad how many fewer kids we have playing every year. — Alaina Kenney, Mount Airy, Md.

Roman Pennella, 13, near left, will play high school football in Connecticut next year. CreditCourtesy of Amy Pennella

My 13-year-old will move on to high school football next year. He’s wanted to play as soon as he was 8 years old. You know your son loves to play football when he wakes up on Sundays and says, “Who am I going to crush today?”

My son plays both ways on the line and he gets knocked around, but he’s been taught how to tackle the right way and I trust in his coaches and other coaches that they are teaching these kids the proper football techniques for less or no injury. — Amy Pennella, Greenwich, Conn.

Correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this story misidentified the city where Amy Pennella lives. It’s Greenwich, Conn., not Saint Paul, Minn.

A note to readers who are not subscribers: This article from the Reader Center does not count toward your monthly free article limit.

Follow the @ReaderCenter on Twitter for more coverage highlighting your perspectives and experiences and for insight into how we work.

Lela Moore is a comment moderator and audience reporter. She covers reader reaction to breaking news and popular articles on topics ranging from politics to business to sports. @runlelarun Facebook