Would You Let This Boy Play Football?
For the eight years since my twin boys were born, I assumed that if they asked to play football, I’d simply say no.
It’s not that I wanted to swaddle them in bubble wrap until they were 18. I’m not that nuts. I just wanted to make sure that they got to adulthood in one piece. I’ve seen the look of pure joy on Emmett’s face as he scaled a rocky ledge, or Finn’s excitement as he pedaled his bike at top speed down our street. But every once in a while, I’ll peek my head out the front door and ask, “Um, boys, is this a good idea?” cringing at just how ridiculously overprotective I sound even as I say it. They get up with wide grins, bits of dried leaves in their flaxen hair, and reassure me, “It’s fine, Mom” in a weird sort of role reversal. I know this is normal boy stuff.
I just have to occasionally remind them that, well, they’re not unbreakable. Their job is to remind me that they’re boys.
Still, I always thought I’d draw the line at football. I mean, you can’t ignore the concussion talk—it’s everywhere in the news. We’re constantly reminded that repeated head injuries can cause permanent damage, that seven- and eight-year-old boys are capable of hitting one another with a G-force of 80 or greater, the level you’d find in a car crash. That young, developing brains are actually more vulnerable to injury—concussion rates are nearly twice as high at the high school level than in college—and that the effects of many minor hits throughout a season can be more damaging than head injuries in older players. Oh, and that no helmet can completely protect a developing brain.
Figuring that the twins wouldn’t even consider playing if their buddies didn’t, I even made a pact with their best friend’s mom a few years ago that neither of us would cave. This way, I assumed, the question would never come up.
But one day in September, it did.
“Hey, Mom,” Finn called to me from the dining table as I dashed around the kitchen, trying to prepare dinner, help with homework, and keep an eye on my five-year-old on the swing set outside. “Can I play football?”
He asked in the offhand way he might have requested a glass of milk or another cookie, but the question stopped me in my tracks. I realized I’d been dreading this moment since he and his brother first tossed around Nerf footballs as toddlers.
Logically, the answer should have come easily, so why couldn’t I just say no?
We live in Wayland, not exactly a football town—it’s not Massillon, Ohio, where more than half the population of 30,000 piles into the stands every Friday night to root for the Washington High School Tigers. In Wayland, we’re lucky to get one-tenth of that. In fact, among the kids, lacrosse and soccer are just as popular to play as football—maybe even more so. That said, there’s no denying that football draws the largest crowd: For those 1,500 Wayland fans sitting in the bleachers, it’s thrilling to bundle up in hooded sweatshirts, sip hot cocoa, and watch the Warriors play.
Maybe some of our rah-rah football enthusiasm comes from nostalgia: During my own upbringing in suburban Washington, DC, football was big. The teachers would herd us into the gym for pep rallies at my high school; I’d convince my mom to drop us off at the gate instead of (God forbid!) walking us in; we’d linger in the parking lot with friends after the game to figure out where to go next (inevitably it was the 7-Eleven down the street). The anticipation was usually the best part: Would the boy I like be at the game? Would we sit near him and his friends? Would there be an after-party, and would he show up? Friday-night football games were as fundamental to the high school experience as prom or homecoming.
My love of the spectacle came flooding back when I decided to take my husband and our three kids to watch a Wayland High School football game on a Friday night this past October. I hadn’t been in nearly 25 years, and I wanted to understand how the game could have such a strong hold on me after all these years.
We hurried through the parking lot, past the visiting team’s idling bus and toward the flood-lit playing field. We heard the marching band start up and the crowd cheer. My heart rate quickened as the whole family unconsciously broke into a little jog to get to the stands. Midway through the game, I looked over at Finn and caught the sparkle in his eye as he followed the action around us. We were so close to the field that we could recognize the players—they were friends and neighbors, with names like O’Donnell and Carmichael. We knew some of the cheerleaders practicing their jumps, too; we paused to greet familiar faces as we trip-trapped along the metal bleachers to sit at the 40-yard line. My kids jumped to their feet and waved their arms wildly as quarterback Robert Jones ran the ball into the end zone. They high-fived each other as Jimmy Lampert pounced on a fumbled punt attempt, and did a touchdown dance as running back Jeremiah Darlington sprinted 36 yards to end the 34–6 victory over Boston Latin.
This was Wayland football, and it was every bit as thrilling as I’d remembered.
But a few things have happened in Wayland recently that’ve made football an exquisitely sensitive topic here—and it started with a murder. On July 3, 2011, a recent Wayland High School graduate named Lauren Astley was beaten, strangled, and slashed to death by her former boyfriend, Nathaniel Fujita. Fujita had been a Wayland High School football player and was about to enter Trinity College. That summer evening, he lured Astley to his family’s garage and took her life for breaking up with him.
Astley’s murder truly rocked this small town of 10,000. We all wept alongside Astley’s family and friends in the days that followed the murder. How could such a violent act have occurred under our watch? We felt violated and betrayed—perhaps even more so as we watched Fujita being led into Framingham District Court wearing a bright-orange Wayland football T-shirt.
During the trial, a psychiatrist for the defense testified that Fujita was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which caused a temporary psychotic episode brought on by repeated football-induced head injuries. Fujita’s defense argued that a series of concussions he’d sustained while playing football had led to a temporary break with reality—and that Fujita could therefore be ruled not guilty by reason of insanity. The jury refuted that notion by handing down a guilty verdict, and Fujita was given a life sentence.
Following the trial, Lauren’s father, Malcolm Astley, a retired principal with a gentle demeanor, committed himself to battling teen-relationship violence. He and his ex-wife launched the Lauren Dunne Astley Memorial Fund to promote “effective teen relationships and violence prevention, the arts, and community service.” In the aftermath of his daughter’s death, Malcolm Astley has been active in speaking publicly to journalists, students, and lawmakers about domestic violence and “breakup violence” issues.
Malcolm is also a Wayland School Committee member, and in keeping with his interest in protecting kids from harm, he asked the committee to put the subject of youth concussions on its agenda after reading a spate of news articles on traumatic brain injuries. Although Astley never mentioned Fujita’s name—or made reference to his daughter’s murder—it certainly could not have escaped his audience’s attention why the issue was important to him. (Astley himself didn’t acknowledge this connection: When I spoke to him a month later, he told me he didn’t want his efforts to raise awareness about the dangers of youth concussions to be confused with his crusade to battle teen-relationship violence.)
On September 22, during a meeting that was broadcast on Wayland’s public-access television station, Astley asked his fellow committee members to consider whether the school system was doing enough to alert parents to the severity of the problems associated with head injuries. He read aloud a transcript of an NPR report citing a story in the journal Brain that added “weight to concerns about the effect of repeated mild head trauma in athletes, whether they’re pros or peewees.” He paused briefly, and then quoted Dr. Robert Cantu, codirector of Boston University’s CTE Center: “The sheer volume of cases, I think, is going to just overwhelm anybody that wants to be in denial about the existence of this problem. Roughly 80 percent of all people with histories of hits to the head showed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE in short, which results in gradual degradation of brain tissue.”
Astley looked up from reading: “That’s too big for me to just let this roll on.”
Wayland, he suggested, could at the very least send a note to parents saying that there was considerable risk associated with this activity. Or Wayland could take the most extreme measure and “suspend all sports that regularly involve head collisions until we get this matter understood.” Members of the committee listened respectfully.
Some members admitted that fear of concussions had kept their kids off the gridiron: “We discouraged my son from playing football for the very reason you brought up,” a committee member named Donna Bouchard offered. “It’s a choice factor. Once you’re informed, then you can make informed decisions.”
But Astley pressed the board further: Should we leave this kind of decision-making to individuals? He argued that most parents simply don’t have the information they need to make a sound decision. He then urged the group to acknowledge that maybe we’d arrived at the point where the committee needed to step in and make decisions to protect Wayland’s children—in spite of possible parental objections. He compared eliminating football to legislating the installation and use of seatbelts.
Some committee members worried that increasing the intensity of concussion warnings to parents—while still offering football as an official sport—would be an admission of culpability. Or, at the very least, hypocrisy. But the committee agreed to explore the possibility of a task force to review the school’s concussion policy, and appointed Astley to be the point person to coordinate discussions with the town’s Board of Health.
And that—at least publicly—seemed to be the end of the debate. Astley was allowed to speak his mind, but it did not appear that the school board, or anyone else, was prepared to end the football program in Wayland.
The meeting did, however, produce a passionate defense of the game from an unlikely source. Writing to the Wayland Town Crier under the headline, “Rarely Hear About the Benefits of Football,” a Wayland resident named Wen Stephenson argued that he “learned more about life, and about myself, from my four years of high school foot- ball than I learned in many of my AP classes combined.”
Stephenson is about as far from the stereotypical jock as you can imagine: A former editor for the Atlantic and the Boston Globe whose essays regularly appear in the Nation, Stephenson abandoned the mainstream media several years ago to become a climate-change activist. In a 2012 article for the Boston Phoenix, he described the epiphany that has since driven him to risk arrest in nonviolent acts of civil disobedience, including getting kicked off the campus of Harvard University, his alma mater: “I’m really not an environmentalist, and never have been,” he wrote. “No, I said, I was there for my kids: my son, who’s 12, and my daughter, who’s 8. And not only my kids—all of our kids, everywhere. Because on our current trajectory, it’s entirely possible that we’ll no longer have a livable climate—one that allows for stable, secure societies to survive—within the lifetimes of today’s children.” So I reached out to Stephenson, whose son now plays for the freshman team in Wayland, and asked him: You became a climate activist because you wanted a better world for your kids. Don’t you worry that football could also endanger their health and well-being? His answer was measured: “Seriously, though,” he wrote to me, “the climate threat, and the risk of catastrophic global warming to the lives of my children, and all our children, is far greater and more urgent, and more certain, than the risks of playing youth and high school football. Trust me. I’ve got the global scientific consensus behind me on that one.”
Yet the threat of global warming feels decidedly less real than, say, watching your 15-year-old son step into a girdle, slide shoulder pads over his head, and adjust the chin strap on his helmet. “I’m not really worried about my son playing football,” Stephenson said. “Sure, it’s in the back of my mind—but I feel that way about a lot of things he does: driving a car, riding his bike to school. We let our kids do other risky things that have far less value.” And by value, he meant “perseverance, playing through pain, overcoming adversity, loyalty.”
He has a point: if I stopped to think about what could happen to my kids, I’d be paralyzed with fear and never let them leave the house.
When we were growing up, kids got concussions. We’d shake them off and get back in the game after resting for a play or two on the bench. We even made light of it: Remember how Wile E. Coyote was always getting the lights knocked out of him and seeing stars? We just giggled. Torn ACLs were actually a much bigger deal back then. Part of me wanted to chalk all this concussion talk up to modern parenting hysteria.
To get a sense of how overprotective we’ve become, consider the school bus stop on my street: On any given weekday morning, you’ll find no fewer than five parents shivering in sub-30-degree temperatures alongside their kids. Why? “Because a stranger might come along and swipe one of them,” says a friend, only half-jokingly. And forget about letting them climb trees (they might fall!), build snow forts (suffocation!), or play in leaf piles (ticks!).
If we’re not okay with letting our kids wait by themselves for the bus, why would we send them onto a football field? Here in Wayland, participation in the youth football league is down about 20 percent over the past few years. Shawn Fennelly, president of Wayland Weston Youth Football & Cheerleading, tells me the numbers were down even before concussions became a hot topic, attributing some of that to out-of-season sports like lacrosse and baseball now offering fall club teams, as well as the town’s changing demographics. (Wayland has seen a recent surge in the number of immigrant families, for whom football is not a cultural institution.) Then again, it would be foolish to totally discount fear as a factor in some of that decline.
A week after watching the Warriors game, I met up with Wayland’s head football coach, Scott Parseghian, and assistant coach Sam Breslin. I wanted them to tell me about the rewards of playing. Because in spite of my helicopter-parenting tendencies, arguments in favor of football resonate with me nearly as much as the warnings of danger double my resolve. I wanted to grapple with the football-speak head-on (no pun intended).
What I got from the coaches was a convincing football-will-change-your-life pep talk. Their words echoed many of Stephenson’s sentiments. They told me that playing the sport has the potential to boost Finn’s confidence, help him build lifelong friendships, and provide him with vital time-management skills as he balances practice, games, and schoolwork. It would also beef up his college résumé— apparently smart, well-rounded football players are magnets for Division III schools, especially now that the numbers of students playing the sport are declining.
Breslin, a class of 2004 grad, told me that football brings with it the “social benefit of being in the spotlight on and off the field.” Players proudly wear their orange-and-black jerseys to school on game days. “You’re part of a large and influential group,” he said. That cachet extends beyond campus, too, he noted. Players regularly get stopped on the street by well-meaning townsfolk to talk about Friday night’s game. With all the pressures that come with adolescence these days, there’s something nice about your kid feeling like a BMOC. Breslin added, “Football carries with it an intangible coolness.”
Yes, I want my kids to be safe. But I also want them to be confident and well liked. And as I reported this story, the football-speak started to echo in my head. Jon Mehlman, whose nine-year-old son is friendly with my boys, asked if I’d consider letting them play for his third-grade team. “It was such a positive experience in my own life,” he said. “It was the thing I looked forward to more than anything else. It gives kids a sense of purpose and camaraderie, and it teaches them respect and a ton of discipline.”
Mehlman’s nostalgia hinted ever so slightly at that intangible thing that makes football so uniquely American, so uniquely powerful: “We have such a special thing here in Wayland,” he said. “Football is such a gift.” The sport has a grip on those who have played it. Maybe there are some things I’ll never understand.
So instead of saying no, I told Finn something like, “We’ll see,” and hoped that he’d move on to more-benign interests, like rock collecting or making paper airplanes.
And that did work—for a little while, anyway. Finn joined the Cub Scouts and played soccer twice a week. And then on a fall outing with the Scouts, one of our fellow hikers, a fourth-grade football player, excitedly told my boys about the game as we walked. At the end of the hike, the boy came running up to me. “Why won’t you let Finn play football?” he asked earnestly.
My first instinct was to correct him. I’d never actually said no; I’d simply avoided the subject. Instead I stuttered, “Uh, well, I’m nervous about him getting hurt.”
“Oh no, it’s very safe,” the boy told me. “I haven’t gotten hurt once.”
“Please, Mom?” Finn said, his pockets bulging with a collection of milkweed pods, skipping rocks, and acorns he’d amassed along the way. “Please let me play.”
Like many small New England towns, Wayland isn’t a place where people get up into one another’s faces about contentious issues. Yes, our hyper-involved citizens have been known to write letters chastising the school committee for violating an open meeting law. But tackling something as divisive as axing the football program? That’s too confrontational. My neighbors spent the fall avoiding talk of concussions and football the same way we dodge topics like abortion or gun rights. You’re entitled to your opinion; I’ve got mine. No point in rocking the boat. That’s how we New Englanders all get along so well. You choose what’s best for you.
To be sure, folks around here have strong views…but the silence has been deafening.
When I asked the editor of the Wayland Voters Network, Michael Short, why he thinks no one made a public fuss following Astley’s presentation, he told me, “It’s possible that…parents look out for their kids, but don’t have the time or inclination to start a public discussion.”
I have another theory: Because Wayland is such a small town—and this is such a controversial issue—people won’t air their opinions in the open for fear of social reprisal.
So while the public discussion was muted—nonexistent, really—I got the message in more subtle, intimate ways. One of my neighbors said that he’d pack up his family and move if the town eliminated the football program. Until that moment, I had no idea he felt so strongly. And others emerged to quietly warn me in hushed tones: A friend pulled me aside at a children’s birthday party; she waited until I was alone by a crafts table. Word had gotten out around town that I was writing about this potentially touchy subject, and she wanted me to know that the leaders of the Wayland Weston Youth Football program had put an extraordinary amount of time, energy, and resources into safety and concussion awareness. She was trying to be helpful, but I got the message loud and clear: In a town this size, you don’t want to piss certain people off.
I know many of the parents and organizers of this football league, and they’re a tight-knit group of fun, easygoing folks with whom I’d enjoy being friends (not dissimilar from the football players and cheerleaders back in our high school days—and chances are, many of them were). I could be one of them, too… if I signed my kid up for football.
By the end of November, I found myself torn down the middle. I didn’t want to deny my boys anything that would bring them joy—the unspeakable thrill of scoring a touchdown or dating a cheerleader or bonding so deeply with teammates. Then again, a sliver of me wanted the town to legislate against football so I didn’t have to say no. Which is how I found myself looking for someone else to take responsibility for this decision.
That person, it turned out, ended up being my husband, Jeremy. He had remained mum this whole time, patiently waiting until it occurred to me to ask his opinion. His answer was definitive: no. “Maybe I’m a little risk-averse, but I’ve had experience with football, and I know what it’s like,” said Jeremy, who played football briefly in high school and is a big guy at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds. “Is it something that builds character? Is it something that’s going to be good for them? Possibly. But can they get that from other sports? Absolutely,” he tells me. “I’m not willing to expose my kid to that risk—at least for now.”
How about when he’s a freshman in high school, and about your size, and he begs you to play? I ask.
“I don’t know. I’m not there yet. I’m not ready to say.”
And neither am I. The science is out there; things have happened, and kids have gotten hurt. But assessing risk is a part of life, and a big part of parenting. It’s also a part of growing up. I don’t want my kids to learn that they have to run away from the things that scare them. But as long as they find satisfaction in all the other things going on in their lives, I think our no football stance won’t kill them. It’ll make them stronger.