My nephew, a responsible, sweet-natured young father, reports that his son, 12, will be trying out for his school's football team this fall.
He and his wife are ambivalent. At every level football is a rough game that demands the willingness to impose and endure pain - and injury - for the sake of victory. In fact, one index on a team's chances of success is its capacity to be rougher and tougher than its opponents.
So, in the nature of the game, virtually every kid who plays football is going to suffer some sort of injury, major or minor, long-term or short.
What's a concerned parent to do? On one hand, you can't swaddle your child in "bubble wrap." On the other, he really could suffer a life-changing injury. Yet from Pee Wee League to the NFL, our culture assigns the highest status to the football hero, an aspiration that a 12-year-old boy has trouble resisting. I suspect that many parents do what my nephew is doing: Hoping that good coaching and modern equipment will somehow protect their sons.
The dilemma reminds me of my brief football career. This wasn't in the pre-facemask era, but at least one coach boasted of never having played a down with a facemask. I think he was implying that only sissies would require such luxuries as facemasks.
"Never sacrifice speed for safety," he said.
My parents were reluctant to give their approval, but eventually they relented. My mother's concern over my safety took a blow when a kid named Ronnie broke his leg in the first game. That was the end of his football career, and all through high school his gait was never the same.
In eighth grade, Freddie broke his arm; it was in a cast for a long time and eventually doctors had to "re-break" it so that it would heal correctly. In ninth grade, Brian broke his leg, and he spent a long time in the hospital.
I was a good player, but when I was a sophomore, a knee injury brought my career to an end. The effects of the injury persisted. For years I had a "bad" knee; now that the rest of my joints have caught up, it feels, more or less, normal.
I mention this brief history not because it's extraordinary; the injury that never quite goes away is common in football.
And in some ways, Ronnie, Freddie, Brian and I were the lucky ones. We left the game with injuries that have only modest lifelong effects. Consider the case of Alex Pierscionek. At 250 pounds he was a prospect for the varsity at his Chicago high school. One day he blacked out after a hard collision with an offensive lineman. He woke up hours later in an emergency room. A couple of years later he's still suffering from headaches, depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts, and his educational opportunities are limited.
But there's nothing extraordinary about Alex, either. His was one of 60,000 concussions that occur in high school football every year (the real number is probably considerably higher; the football ethic involves hiding injuries). And a recent study from Purdue University indicates players can suffer significant mental impairment from "sub-concussive" injuries, the ordinary wear and tear on the brain from getting hit in the head a lot.
So, parents, you face a tough decision. The game isn't going to change in any meaningful way, and efforts toward better equipment and more trainers are mostly window dressing.
But if you're still on the fence, consider the story of John McClamrock, as told by Skip Hollandsworth in Texas Monthly, May 2009.
In 1973 McClamrock, 17, made an ordinary tackle on the opening kickoff for his high school in Dallas. From that moment until he died almost 35 years later, he never moved another muscle below his broken neck.
Unfortunately, his story isn't all that unusual, either. Diehard football fans will not be dissuaded by what happened to McClamrock. But read his story before you decide whether your son should play.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.