Monday, May 16, 2016

A Legal Age to Play Football?

A few national sportswriters and pundits have started to bemoan what they allege to be the “war on football” that the media is engaged in, defending the sport for what it is and attacking those that are trying to eliminate it from the face of the American landscape.  Right now, there is significant research that supports waiting until youngsters are at least 12-years old before they are allowed to play contact football, specifically in a study  published in the medical journal Neurology by researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine.  While the justification for this argument is the physical development of the youngster, there is another argument that based on who is making it and the substance of the argument, I find quite interesting.

You may be familiar with Dr. Bennet Omalu, or have at least heard a little bit about his research.  Perhaps you are aware of him being played by Will Smith in the movie Concussion.  Omalu is a forensic pathologist and the leading expert in the growing field of concussion research, as well as the individual that initiated the study of the brains of former NFL football players.  He identified what is commonly referred to as CTE.  Chronic traumatic encephalopathy can cause “major depression, memory loss, suicidal thought and actions, and loss of intelligence as well as dementia later in life.”  According to Omalu, what makes this particularly scary is that “the brain, unlike most other organs, does not have the capacity to cure itself following all types of injuries."

In late 2015, Omalu provided an op-ed piece to the New York Times in which he proposed that there should be a legal age established for children to reach before they can play football and other high contact sports.  In essence, he proposes an age of legal consent, where the individual makes a legal decision as to whether or not they play the sport.  According to Omalu: "Our children are minors who have not reached the age of consent. It is our moral duty as a society to protect the most vulnerable of us. The human brain becomes fully developed at about 18 to 25 years old. We should at least wait for our children to grow up, be provided with the information and education on the risk of play, and let them make their own decisions. No adult, not a parent or a coach, should be allowed to make this potentially life-altering decision for a child.”  Obviously, that could have huge implications for high school football, the sport with the highest level of male participation in the country.

Switching gears a little bit, there are those devoted to the other brand of “football,” the international game we refer to as soccer, that also resent the “war” being waged on their beloved sport.  For females, the sport with the highest incidence of concussions is soccer, followed by volleyball.  Leaders in the sport of soccer in the United States have taken steps at youth levels by instituting changes in the rules.  There were attempts at the development of various kinds of headgear for protection, but those proved either cumbersome or not effective.  So, another step was taken: a ban on “heading” the ball until players reach a certain age.  Purists in this sport are saying that the specific rule change is ruining the integrity of the game, the purity of the sport.  Heading is a fundamental skill of soccer and to remove it significantly changes the game.  So, it isn’t just proponents of American football that are facing a new reality in terms of the impact concussion research is having on a sport.

The issue of concussions is a serious one, and more is being learned each day.  Are concussions among our  youth athletes a major health concern?  I have not heard that.  But it is serious enough that youth football programs, and even the N.F.L. have developed programs and changed rules to make it more safe.  But, even with those changes, Omalu stated that in our country laws have been written to prevent children from harming themselves in other ways.  For example, it is illegal for those under a certain age to smoke cigarettes or consume alcohol. They cannot enlist in the military until they are 18 because of the seriousness of that decision.  So, based on the risks, Omalu reasons why not require young men to reach the age of consent before they can make their own decision on whether or not they play football?   Obviously the implications on high school athletics would be huge, and from my perspective, I do not see this happening.  However, it is a perspective that some people are going to listen to and could likely contribute to the declining number of children playing the game of football.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Pressure In the Wrong Places

I can’t count the number of times I have made the comment “An 18-year old today is not nearly as mature as an 18-year old in the 1960’s and certainly not as mature as an 18-year old in my grandfather’s generation, commonly referred to today as The Greatest Generation.  Whenever I think about those 18-year old young men, some younger, who volunteered to go and fight in Europe or in the Pacific,  I envision those young men who made an incredibly mature decision to go and fight for freedom.  Many of those young men were already married at a young age, some of them having children and working a job.  When they set foot on foreign soil, they did so with the balance of freedom on their shoulders.  They were men that came from every walk of life and they knew full well what they were getting into, and why.  Today, I do not see adolescents and young adults faced with the same kinds of decisions or realities.

The paradox is that young people are physically maturing earlier than previous generations.  Young boys and girls today experience puberty at a far younger age that even a couple of generations ago.  That leads to a dynamic that is much different in terms of the total maturation process.  Sexually mature individuals are living for six years or more under the direct authority and supervision of their parents.  This extends the amount of time that students are dependent on their parents and delays the need for young people to make major decisions on their own.

What we have now is a population of highly educated young people leaving the nest that lack important life skills.  High school graduates today have a much higher level of education today than at any other time in our nation’s history.  They also have access to more resources than any time in history, yet college professors sometimes remark “26 is the new 18,” referencing their perceptions of how immature and unprepared people are for adult life.  In other words, adolescence has expanded into the twenties!

What has happened to cause this?  Researchers point to the notion that adults do not apply as much pressure on them as my great grandparents did during the time they were raising their kids.  More important, the pressure that is being applied is in places where it does not matter as much in terms of preparing individuals to deal with adult life.  In previous generations, parents put pressure on their kids to experience different work scenarios, prepare for family life, interact with people from different age groups, and develop a strong work ethic.  But that has apparently changed.  Today the pressure parents exert comes in different places that in the big picture do not make a big difference in preparing young people to become mature and productive adults.

So, what are the areas where parents are putting pressure on their children, and why doesn’t it help them become adults able to live independently?  Tim Elmore identifies three: grades, sports, and prestige.  Think about the amount of attention is given to each of these in your household.  Elmore states that “no one except our mom cares about your grades twenty years later,” and that their importance is overblown when it comes to scholarships and college admission.  Corporations and workplaces express that high school and college grades are not a very good reflection of job success. 

Overzealous parents are pushing their kids to excel on the playing field, hauling them all over the country to play on travel teams, and paying for private coaching.  The reality is, less than 1% are going to get college scholarships to play sports, and less than that are going to make their living playing sports.  Those kids are going to be software developers, nurses, and accountants, not point guards or shortstops.

Parents are also pushing their kids to be popular, and this pressure manifests itself in a number of different ways that in the big picture do not matter one iota.  Keeping track of and trying to accumulate as many Followers, Likes, and Views as possible is the new scoreboard for popularity.  In small schools in particular, the pressure to be popular also comes with challenges to value systems that students are still developing.  The reality is that this is fleeting, for some disappearing overnight should they take a social misstep.  For the rest, once graduation day is over, no one cares who the popular kids were.  There is no longer a need to have a pecking order.
When the young person moves beyond high school, it isn’t long before most of them recognize that they had been playing a game, and realize that those things they put a lot of emphasis on really do not matter.  And then, they recognize that they are not prepared for those things that are really important because the never had the pressure in those areas before.  For some, they experience emotional issues as they try to rationalize meaning with what they have accomplished up to that point.  Since they have not been prepared for the real responsibilities of life, they struggle, and many deal with those struggles by falling back into their comfort zone, which is a dependence on Mom and Dad.

If this is the case, then what should be done differently?  Again, according to Tim Elmore, the adults need to apply pressure on things that matter.  One example is to help children identify their strengths, develop them, and become very aware of their personal identity.  They need to know who they are and have confidence in what they can do.  People of character are also going to get further in life, and thus it is imperative that parents pressure their children to do the right thing, no matter the circumstances.  And finally, parents need to insist that their son or daughter develop a strong work ethic.  The need to understand that the quality of work they do is important, and that they also need to work to serve others.  These are the qualities that will lead to success in their future.