Should My Son Play Football? My Husband and I Disagree!

My son played youth league football for the first time last year and loved it. He's pretty good at it, and he will probably grow into the kind of body that football coaches crave. But one of his teammates sustained a pretty serious neck injury and had to quit, and I am always reading stories about how cumulative impacts from playing football can lead to serious long-term complications like traumatic brain injury, dementia, even ALS. I have decided in light of what I have seen and read that I do NOT want my son playing football anymore. My husband vehemently disagrees with me, though. He thinks we should let him play as long as he wants to and says there is risk in everything and serious injuries in football are rare. I haven't shared my concerns with my son yet and I think he'd be heartbroken to not be allowed to play. I don't know what to do! I feel like it's two against one here. I feel like if my husband was on my side, we would be able to make a strong case together to convince my son it's not in his best interests to play. But if I lay down the law myself, I'm the "bad" parent. I also know how much my son gets out of football besides just the fun ... there's teamwork, it forces him to focus on his grades, it keeps him physically active instead of parked on the sofa playing video games, gives him social connection, etc. There are good aspects to it. I don't want to discount that but I fear letting him play is ultimately irresponsible and too risky for his own good. What do you think? —Playing with Fire
Dear Playing with Fire,

Thanks for your question. An excellent one indeed and one which I know many parents can relate to. Even though I’m a football fan myself (from Pittsburgh!), I understand your concerns and share them as my own daughter becomes interested in sports. Sure, there is risk inherent in all sports—our friend’s daughter suffered a nasty leg injury just playing soccer—but football seems especially risky by nature. You’re being a protective, responsible mom. There is no easy resolution to this.

I’ll respond in three parts. The first is practical. You mentioned the unfortunate neck injury to your son’s friend. How rare is it? How many such injuries occur in a given football season(s), and is anything being done to prevent the reoccurrence of such an incident? (Also, did this have any deterrent effect on your son’s enthusiasm?) Does the league have up-to-date safety equipment and protective gear? Yes, football is dangerous, but there are things you can do to reduce risk: discourage overly aggressive play (banning helmet-to-helmet contact, imposing penalties for unsafe playing) and encourage good sportsmanship. Could you talk to other mothers to get their impressions about the league’s approach to safety?

The second aspect concerns your son’s attachment to the game. It seems like yanking him abruptly could be divisive for your family and perhaps for your son, whose identity appears enmeshed with the sport. Maybe he could, football or no football, develop some other interests, groups, etc. It’s good to be well-rounded at his age, especially if he were to suffer an injury not as serious as his friend’s, but enough to keep him on the sidelines a while. I also think it’s OK to talk to your child about your own dilemma, rather than having a hardened positioned that is unswayable. Something like, “Well, I need you to be safe, but I know you love this thing, so I’m conflicted.” I think it’s important that he understands he is doing something risky and that it’s your job to be worried about such risk.

But before talking to your son, consider my third and most important concern—namely, how this issue is to be resolved with your husband. The last thing you want is for your son to become caught in a power struggle. I would hope your husband wouldn’t try to “recruit” his son against you and make it two against one, or vice versa. How invested is your husband in this? Is he backing his son’s choices or egging him on? Hard to say? I think it’s important that both your husband and you come to understand and respect each other’s feelings about the matter, never mind the “right” decision, since there might not be one in this case. A difficult compromise appears on the horizon. Your husband’s minimizing your worries won’t do; neither would your discounting the importance of whatever fatherly pleasure he receives from all this (assuming it is not overly intrusive or controlling). Does any other father-son bonding activity take place? How would your husband feel if, for instance, your son decided he wanted to hang up his shoulder pads and take up badminton? Is dad’s acceptance contingent on the gridiron?

Disagreement is inevitable, but you want to avoid a clash where your son has to “pick a side.” My main suggestion is you and your husband arrive at an emotionally moderate place (rather than resentful disagreement, for instance) before sitting down with your son and laying out your concerns and quandaries. That place may mean a peaceful agreement to disagree. Ideally, you would let your son know you both will support whatever he decides so that he does not have to pick the “winner” of the argument, an unfair position for him. The awkward truth is that sometimes kids just love playing certain sports and their identity is—for the time being, at least—heavily invested in those activities, and some of those sports are dangerous. All of it needs to be considered. There is risk in letting him play and in not letting him play, it sounds like.

Being a parent is difficult. Our kids tend to have minds and hearts of their own and we don’t always like their choices. We also need to do our best to keep them safe. A line in the sand is sometimes needed (don’t drive drunk, complete high school) and sometimes such lines backfire if a child’s heart and spirit is set on following a certain dream with uncertain outcomes (becoming an actor, playing football). Working against you, I think, is the fact football is still such a prized pursuit among many men; he might possibly suffer social blowback if he weren’t allowed to play, and perhaps become resentful about it. Ultimately, this is a family decision, so I suggest doing some of the due diligence outlined above and then sitting down with your husband—with a moderator, if need be (pastor, family counselor)—to get on the same page or to peacefully and respectfully agree that there may not be a same page. I would discourage both spouses from having secret chats with your son behind the other’s back. Disappointment is one thing, but family divisiveness is one of the most painful (and potentially lasting) injuries of all.

Thanks again for writing. Let us know what happens!

Best wishes,
Darren

Darren Haber
Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
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  • trent

    trent

    March 13th, 2015 at 10:16 AM

    This is so tricky because I can definitely see both sides. I guess there is the risk of injury in everything that we do, and at least in football they do wear pads and helmets. Good luck coming to what I know will be a hard decision for you both!

  • Betty

    Betty

    March 13th, 2015 at 11:40 AM

    Too dangerous-
    don’t let him play

  • Mills

    Mills

    March 14th, 2015 at 1:16 PM

    The two of you have got to be more willing to sit down with each other and work this thing out. This is far to important to engage in a standoff over, and the one put in the middle, and you know that this will be true, will be your son. You owe it to him to come to a reasonable decision TOGETHER

  • jamie s

    jamie s

    March 16th, 2015 at 11:35 AM

    Aren’t we forgetting that the person who really needs to decide is the child. If he wants to play and it sounds like he does, then I would at least let him give it a shot. Making it something that is forbidden will only make him want to do it worse than if you just let him go ahead and have the experience./

  • Darren Haber

    Darren Haber

    March 16th, 2015 at 4:10 PM

    I am appreciating all of these comments, we have some astute readers out there! Thanks.

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