The Colosseum of Youth

With our current epidemic of childhood obesity, it would seem any vigorous activity, but particularly organized sports would be something to promote for our children.

The demand for fitness, work ethic, competitive drive, sportsmanship and cooperation all serve as valuable lessons for children, not just for their future athletic endeavors, but in life. From a health standpoint, anything that teaches kids to get out and get moving each day is a good thing but what I often find myself wondering is, ‘why does that even take effort?’

Young children are naturally playful and rambunctious. I can still remember the feeling of the red kickball in my hands and desire to run for my life on the school yard, a thick mass of students chasing, swarming and feeling the same sensation. When did childhood change?

Of course, ‘ball chase’ didn’t often end well. There was a lot of pushing and falling and scraping of knees. Similar unintended consequences were standard for many of the child-engineered games of my youth. My own children are still young but, from what I understand, things are different now. Gone are the days of neighborhood manhunt and the sometimes brutal ‘unorganized’ games of childhood. We have entered the era of ‘organized sports.’

My first experience with organized sports was little league, followed by basketball through my senior year in high school, with some halfhearted attempts to run cross country thrown into the mix. I may have shown up for track a few times too but, after clipping every hurdle in the 110 and being denied the chance to even touch one of the javelins, much less throw them, I lost interest. Still, basketball became a big part of my life until I suffered a pretty brutal ACL tear in a medical school pick-up game.

That injury is common enough that most people know exactly what that is. Wes Welker. RG3. The list goes on. It’s no biggie: a year of rehab- even less for Welker, and he’s slicing all over the field like mega-man again. Football season is upon us yet again, and, a few years out, Welker is still looking pretty good. Two touchdowns in opening week isn’t bad.

What many sports fans, and certainly most children watching don’t know is that these athletes are in for problems later on. Read the literature on ACL tears and learn about the associated cartilaginous injuries that often occur and you will find painful arthritis is almost certain for many of these athletes. Football players in particular suffer incredible pain later in life.

And this sort of thinking- the idea that ‘leaving it all on the field’ one friday night in high school might lead to a lifetime of trouble- is exactly the sort of thinking children and teenagers are incapable of. Their brains simply do not interpret risk the way we as adults do.

A recent article in the journal Pediatrics offered proof for what many of us were considering likely: that successive concussions lead to longer recovery times. The brain ‘bruising’ lasts longer. At least, the cognitive symptoms do.

I am all for sports. I really am. I think organized sports are an excellent experience for children. But our culture does glamorize those with the rare gift.

And as hard as we try to offer caution on some of the dangers inherent,  it means nothing compared to the visceral thrill of an incredible hit on Monday Night Football and children and adolescents are the least likely to weigh the consequences and assess the risks appropriately.

That is why it is our job as parents, and I am speaking to fathers mostly here, not to let the thrill of sport cloud our judgement. It is important to lead by example and not to be carried away. It is important not to reward reckless risks with praise.

The lucky ones, the ones that make it to the NFL and actually get paid for their sacrifices are in for their fair share of pain later on in life. They are adults and, hopefully, are making an educated choice for salary and love of sport.

The vast majority of children involved in football and other sports with a high risk of repeated concussion and other injuries, will still learn valuable lessons and learn to work hard and exercise. But reckless plays, hard hits and improper form can have lifelong impact. I suffered several concussions as a teenager, though I didn’t know what they were at the time. We might harken to a grittier time- we might viscerally want to urge them to ‘leave it all on the field’ but this impulse is wrong.

Children and teenagers are not configured to weigh the risks. They are configured to recklessly pursue the thrill. It is our jobs to suppress this feeling. It is our job to weigh the risks for them.