To Play or Not to Play: The Great Concussion Debate

The Other Side of the Story


With the retiring of 24-year-old linebacker Chris Borland from the San Francisco 49ers and a new football season around the corner we find concussions once again in the forefront of national debate. As a Vice President of a Youth Football League and a coach I am once again faced with the questions, worries and fears of parents as they make that crucial decision whether or not to let their kids play. I must admit as a parent with four boys all of which play football, one in high school and three in the youth program, seeing all the news stories, documentaries and information is quite frankly terrifying.

I find that I have to question myself and ask if it makes sense for my kids to continue to play this game. It is a game that my kids love and I enjoy being a part of, even my wife enjoys it, but not at the risk to their lives. The only thing that saves me from not calling it quits and pulling them off the field immediately is…the truth. The truth is none of my kids are in the NFL, a big time college program or high stakes all or nothing high school programs.

The youth game is a completely different entity than the pros. In the youth program if any of our kids were making the maximum pain and violence type hits they do in the pro’s they would immediately be pulled off the field. Brutality is not part of the youth game it is more about sportsmanship, competition and character- no one is getting paid out there. Outside of this I feel there are a couple of points we really need to address, that the national media has not done the best job at, when it comes to concussions.

There are many former professional football players saying they do not want their kids to play, but why has no one asked the questions: why and what does that mean? Sure we can assume that it’s due to risk of concussions but shouldn’t we clarify to make sure. For example when Ray Lewis was asked if he would let his kids play his answer sounded more like it was about bad coaching at the youth level. At the youth level what is the real issue is it concussions, coaching, lack of skill development, size differences? I am not sure because the questions have not been asked. Also a former professional football player can be looking at this quite differently than you or I.

A former pro may be looking not at his kid playing the game but making a career of it. For most of us we are hoping our kids can make a youth team and if they love the game maybe play in high school. In my town in 2012 our high school team the Panthers went undefeated for the season and ended up winning the championship in their division. They happened to win against Doug Flutie’s nephew at quarterback in a game that went to the wire. The core of the team had played together at the youth level and only about 3 or so of them went on to play football in college and I don’t believe any of them are playing at Division I colleges.

For most parents this is the typical experience, play at youth maybe high school and who knows for college. The former professional player may be looking at his kid not only playing at the youth level but a high caliber high school program, a top Division I college and then as a professional. If you look at it this way then yes it may make sense for your son to start playing the game a little later and have less wear and tear. Again the national media has not asked these questions for us to get that understanding but I feel it needs to be part of the conversation. For most of us parents our kids may love the game but never play beyond the youth level. It would be a shame never to allow them that experience.

Another point that has been tugging at my cape deals directly with the words of the now retired San Francisco 49er Chris Borland. Chris said he did the research around the risks to being the linebacker he would like to be to play the way he needs to play. I am not sure about you but I would like to know a little more about what that means. Is it simply the hits, which are more than enough, or also the medicines, pills, enhancers and treatment you may need to keep you in the game. It’s a loaded statement and it could attest to a deeper hidden culture that fuels life as a professional. We also still have yet to identify what if any role performance enhancement drugs have been playing in this concussion debate.

In the end I believe the debate is just beginning. We as a whole, from parents and players to the national media, need to do more to really understand what is being said and what is happening.

Dominic Copeland


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