Disclaimer: This is long. There was so much to take in at the luncheon and I want very much to bring it to all of you readers so I apologize for its length but it after two days of trying to shorten it, I realized that it just wasn’t possible.
I love football. I didn’t always love it. In high school, I did. I cheered for it. In college, it was eh. I dated Leo who played in high school and probably had aspirations to go further but was sidelined by an injury he sustained in basketball and he loved it so there was a lot of watching football and then when we got married, every Sunday was devoted to football watching. I didn’t really love it, I’ll be honest. I endured it because I loved him and well…if I’m being honest, I kind have a thing for football players (I know…shocking). I am a football mom, through and through. From the time Nico was a baby, he had a football, a basketball or a baseball in his hand. He was very driven to play. Tommy, seeing his big brother playing, followed right behind him. There was never any question that they were going to play. Did I worry? Of course but I trusted the programs that they were in. I trusted their coaches.
I wrote about how I came to get invited to the NFL safety commission luncheon but what I didn’t say in the other post was how Leo ended up going. In one of our emails back and forth, I told Clare, the woman from the NFL, that it was funny that I was being asked to go when my husband coached for the last 8 years and is still heavily involved in our community football league and that he would probably have more to say than I would. She sent an email back inviting him. I assumed that meant he had to find his own airfare and we were going to try to use miles. When I asked about the airline to make sure that we could get on the same flight (I really am a wimp), she said it was included for him, too. I was absolutely ecstatic! My dad offered to babysit so I called and told him. I wouldn’t let myself think too much about why I was chosen or if I’d be able to add to the discussion in a meaningful way. It just freaked me out because it felt so big.
I wasn’t sure what to expect but when we got to the NFL offices, it felt so professional. We had to get our pictures taken before we were even allowed on the elevator. We walked into the reception room where all of the Superbowl rings and the Superbowl trophies were displayed and instantly, Leo and I were both starstruck. We walked into the conference room where everyone from professionals from the NFL and USA Football to experts like Dr. Elizabeth Pieroth, Psy.D, Head Injury Consultant for the Chicago Bears to radio personalities and sports writers to bloggers whose kids play football and bloggers who have decided that their kids will not play. The day began with some keynote speakers: Jeff Miller, the vice president of Government Relations and Public Policy from the NFL, Scott Hallenbeck, the executive director of USA Football, Mike Brandt, one of the coaches from the Heads Up program and Sandriena Brown, a mom whose son participates in the Heads Up program. Dr. Pieroth led the open forum. Roger Goodell, the NFL Commissioner was there for the open forum (nothing beats saying something and seeing Roger Goodell nod his head in agreement).
I could spout off all the statistics and numbers of what the NFL is doing to make this sport safer and maybe the men that read this are interested in that. If so, shoot me an email under the “contact me” tab and I’ll get you that information. I am interested in it because with all the findings of what happens to the players after sustaining concussion after concussion, it makes it scary to have my boys playing this sport but I don’t care about the numbers. I care about what the NFL and USA Football through their Heads Up Football program are doing to make it safer for kids to play football. And they are doing a lot. Some of it will be welcomed (proper tackling) and some will be resisted (changing the culture). Heads Up Football is a program with several parts to making this sport safer. Kids need equipment that fits in order for it to do its job. They need coaches that are trained in the right way to tackle and who know the signs and symptoms of a concussion. The educating and awareness needs to be ongoing. The biggest part of this program besides training to tackle taking the head out of the equation is the parents. Parents need to be educated in the signs and symptoms and then need to be advocates for their children. How many of us get a concussion form that we sign at the beginning of the season that we sign without ever really reading it or we skim it and then sign it? I am guilty, guilty, guilty of this. Leo is Tommy’s coach so I figure he’ll be there for Tommy if he gets hurt. Nico has the trainers and coaches that I put my trust into and the odds of me getting onto the field to assess him myself if he gets hurt are slim.
Both of my boys took a hit to the head this past season. Both boys were pulled out of the game. For Nico, the trainer assessed him and what she found, I am not really sure but I watched my son follow his coach up and down the sidelines, asking to be put back in for rest of the half and to his coach’s credit, he did not put him back in. I felt secure that his coaches were taking his health and safety very seriously. For Tommy, his coaches evaluated the kids before the season started and got a baseline result that they could compare if they got hit. It was a visual test that if there were any red flags, they would move on to further evaluation. Tommy did not suffer a concussion and I felt like his coaches absolutely were putting his safety above the game.
Leo spoke for an extended amount of time with both the executive director of USA Football, Scott Hallenbeck and Mike Brandt, one of the player safety coaches of the Heads Up program and is going to try to bring it to our league. If nothing else comes out of the trip to New York other than making our league safer, then it was totally worth going. I loved seeing Leo talk to the two guys about something he is so passionate about.
Dr. Pieroth spoke and one of the things that she said that really struck a chord with me was that soccer is not that far behind football in concussions. I’ve been on the receiving end of some harsh judgements because I let my boys play football and have heard some moms say, “I’d never let my son play football” but they let them play soccer. Hockey is up there as well and how many of us have seen our sons or daughters hit their head or take an elbow to the head on a basketball court. Cheerleading, with all the tumbling that goes on, is even on the map for injuries. Football might be in the lead but other sports aren’t that far behind. She even said that she saw a concussion in her office due to fencing so whenever a child participates in a sport, they can be at risk for an injury.
That’s why each of the speakers stressed the importance of us as parents. We have to be the voice in each of our leagues. We need to ask the leagues our children participate in what their protocol is when dealing with head injuries. We need to go beyond just signing the forms. For each sport my kids participate in, we have to go to a mandatory parents’ meeting. Why not educate the parents at that time? I feel 100% confident at Tommy’s level that if he gets hurt, I can walk on the sideline and ask one of the coaches what happened. I can even go one step further and assess him myself to see if he seems off and then can voice my concerns or reassure the coach that he is fine. Where I feel there is a breakdown is at the high school. What do we, as parents of 8th graders hear constantly? “Oh, wait until high school when you will have no say in anything. You might not even know the coaches and you don’t want to be one of ‘those’ parents.” Nico had some of the nicest coaches that were understanding when he was going to miss practice for a doctor’s appointment or needed to leave early for an orthodontist appointment. I felt that they were fair and he had a great experience. Having said that, even when Nico took a bad hit, I didn’t feel like I could go and see how he was. I had to trust the trainer and the coaches. It’s not the coaches’ fault. It’s the nature of this football culture. They are boys growing into men so their mommies and daddies need to step aside and let the coaches have at ‘em.
Speaking of culture change, that is something that was stressed. Before we see a change in making this sport safer, we need to see a change in how this sport is viewed and some are not really wanting to see that. They want to coach like they were coached. They see the things needed to have a winning team and they don’t want to stray from any of it. They want to keep the “warrior” part of this sport. For example, how many high school or even pee wee football players do you see willingly come out of a game after getting injured. My two boys have played injured countless times because they don’t want to let their team down and there is an “invincible” feeling when you are out on that field (or so they tell me). It doesn’t help that in all the sports they have played throughout all the years, they have been told “Rub some dirt on it, you’ll be fine.” Kids can be taught to look out for each other as well. They can be voices on the field (or court or rink) and speak up when a kid isn’t acting right. It needs to be taught that safety comes first.
If you are wondering what I said, I answered the question, “Why do you allow your kids to play?” The person before me talked about an observation she encountered and that was that some kids play because their parents want them to play. I am not a public speaker and I was nervous to say anything and when I saw how many people were there, I really thought I was just going to listen but I as if I had zero control of my hand, I raised it and found myself telling why we let Nico play tackle football. He was playing flag for a nearby town (not the one Tommy plays for) and they didn’t really enforce the no tackle rule. He was the quarterback and after one nasty play where the other team tackled him, he was on the ground, hurt on the sidelines. I walked over to him to see if he was okay and he said, “Now can I play tackle?” And I said, “Absolutely!” At least with tackle, there is protection. There are pads and helmets that I found comfort in. There are practices where you learn how to tackle the right way. So I said yes, not because I wanted him to play but because he had ALWAYS wanted to play and I felt like that was a safer way to go. What I didn’t say because I didn’t want to be a discussion hog was that I love what my boys have gotten out of football: friendships that have lasted years, high self-esteem from playing a game well, having to pick yourself up after playing a game not great, discipline from practicing hard at something they love, respect for authority while building relationships with their coaches, learning to lose with dignity, and feeling a part of something that is bigger than themselves.
After we broke for lunch, I spoke with a few people, one of which was Jeff Miller, about a topic that was briefly touched on: Referees. The referees need to be trained in the Heads Up program as well because if a ref is going to allow unsafe play, then the kids and the coaches are going to follow suit. We’ve all seen refs make bad calls or allow kids leading with the heads (there is a town in our league that is notorious) and then coaches and kids get frustrated because how do you play against teams that are getting away with borderline illegal or at the very least cheap play? I know it is hard on the refs. They can’t see everything. Ultimately, it is up to the coach and the kids to play a clean game but there are still coaches that only care about winning. If the leagues make it undesirable for dangerous or cheap play, then coaches and players will work harder to avoid it. Truthfully, basketball (and I bet soccer) has been the place that I see the most amount of illegal play happening that refs are not consistent in calling. Elbows, tripping, pushing, hitting and nothing brings on the Mama Bear in me more than when another kids hands are all over my kid. And there are no pads to protect them. I am not a hockey mom but I can guess it can be pretty bad there, too because then you have flying sticks to contend with.
I also brought up how I thought the high schools were going to be the breakdown in getting this program out there. I felt that it was going to be very hard to change the culture of football and that being an advocate for your son was going to be tough because coaches aren’t going to appreciate parents in their faces. The important thing to remember is that this isn’t a license to talk to the coaches about their offense or your kid’s playing time. It’s about making sure your son is safe. If every youth football league adopts this program, by the time Tommy gets to high school, it won’t matter because the head will be taken out of the tackle all the way across the board because everyone surrounding us will have adopted this program. You can imagine my delight when after we reconvened, someone said, “A good point was brought up about the high school being the breakdown…” A good point! Yay!
I went there wanting to revel in the fact that they chose me. I thought about what doors could possibly open and what contacts I could possibly make and both of those excited me. It felt so good to sit there and think, “I write a mommy-blog about the craziness of marriage and motherhood and here I am sitting in the NFL offices.” All of that crossed my mind and then a bigger thought crossed my mind. I am a part of something that is going to make football safer. That is more important than anything else. That is bigger than myself or the blog and it feels good. Really good.
All the way around…best experience.
What about you? Do your kids play? Have your kids ever suffered a concussion? We all worry about our kids’ safety but have you made the decision that your kids won’t play because of that?