Mark Ward Sr on Football
I thought my post on football might bring my father, with his careful reasoning, out of the woodwork; he didn’t disappoint. I asked his permission to post the email he sent me, and it was granted:
I’ve followed your football blog posts and respect your thoughtful approach. 🙂
Then, too, the wisdom that (hopefully) comes with age can acknowledge how times change:
1. When I was growing up in the 1960s, football was the only fall sport for boys. There were no soccer leagues and no fall traveling teams for boys to specialize in baseball or other sports, and thus no alternatives to football for boys who wanted to be active in the fall season.
2. During the Baby Boom there were scads of young boys in every neighborhood who, in those more innocent times, simply “went out and played” after school. In fall and winter the pickup game of choice was tackle football. By age six I was playing tackle on an asphalt cul-de-sac with other little boys every day. So as boys got big enough to hurt each other, many parents felt it safer to put them in youth football leagues with age and weight limits, protective padding and helmets, adult coaching, and enforced rules.
3. Also when I was growing up, there were no Christian schools such as the one your son attends. So every boy went to a public or Catholic junior and senior high where fall football was “the” major component of campus life and you either played (or joined the band or booster club) or were excluded from the social scene.
4. During the 1960s there was no NFL free agency. There were stars but, since squads stayed largely intact, popular culture focused more on teams such as the Packers and Cowboys rather than individuals. Also, the “four-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust” style of play was much more about fundamentals of blocking and tackling (with your shoulder, never your head) rather than the big plays and high scores of today. Youth and scholastic football reflected this “Lombardi Model” of a sacrificial team ethos over individual expression.
Even when you played youth football in the 1990s, I knew it was impossible for you to replicate my experience. So, just as we did with other activities, I thought that for a few years you could give football a try and we would have a father-son activity that I knew something about and could join with you as a coach.
Besides, that’s the experience of most boys who play organized football. My metropolitan high school has been around since 1925 and produced only two NFL players. When I was on the team, 20 boys actually played out of 750 in the school. Only four of my teammates played college ball and only two at the Division I level. By contrast, most boys just play a few years in the youth leagues before being weeded out by middle school (as I was in baseball).
I was in the right era for football to be great for me. If I’m loyal and self-sacrificing to things bigger than me such as my marriage, my work, and my faith, then what I learned playing football is a big part of that. If you have those character traits then much is attributable to what I learned from football and passed along to you. Now those lessons can be passed to a third generation. So I’m content with the legacy of football in our family without a need to see my grandsons play.
Let me say, though, that as the father of a six-year-old you’re passing into a new phase of your son’s life where you’ll need new wisdom. By age six, a boy is transitioning from a sole focus on family and is being exposed to a wider world of social relations.
Still in our society, many elementary-age boys have a need to feel “sporty.” Other boys don’t admire your classroom smarts, only your athletic prowess. The boy who feels left out because he can’t compete at a comparable level to other boys can begin to feel inadequate all around. And for most young boys the requisite basics of a sport must be taught by fathers or other significant males in their lives.
Then, too, a related issue is gradually integrating a child into the wider community through guided participation in structured activities. This is a particular need for children whose family life otherwise centers on a church and Christian school. If they’re never exposed to anything outside their faith community they can struggle later. Better for them to be integrated into the community through parentally supervised activities. Youth sports aren’t the only way but are one option.
So, yes, I share concerns about what the NFL game has become and about CTE. (Many experts suggest children under 13 shouldn’t play tackle football.) As a father, you may be wise to hit the pause button until you can sort things out in your own mind and be ready to guide your children (of both genders) about the place of sports in their lives, rather than let the genie of our prevailing sports culture out of the bottle and try to stuff it back in later.
Yet I think a third way, between blanket prohibition and caving to the culture, is possible. Both young boys and girls will feel peer pressure to worship sports. At the same time, both boys and girls benefit from physical activity, time spent with a parent in such activity, and the feeling of competence that can come from athletic pursuit. Thus, learning about football and other sports from a parent can help a child gain athletic skills that instill confidence while at the same time they can be taught important lessons in moderation and priorities.