Parents rethinking the game of football

Specter of head injuries extends to the parental level

Hundreds of former players — their numbers seemingly swelling by the week — are suing the NFL. They say the league mishandled their head injuries, leaving them with long-term brain damage.

Within just the past month, two former pros, Junior Seau and Ray Easterling, have committed suicide. Had their minds been shorted out by football? Were they martyrs to our lust for violent sport?

The answers to those questions could fundamentally impact America's chosen game.

At the household level, it comes down to one intimate question:

Should my child play football?

The question has been asked by worried parents since Pop Warner was coaching the single wing and is being posed even more so now here in the Age of Concussion Angst.

"I just got off the phone with an old friend whose son is starting ninth grade spring football practice. We talked for a half an hour about that very issue. It's on everyone's mind," said Bruce Hagen, an Atlanta attorney who is co-counsel for more than 200 players who have filed suit against the NFL.

Second thoughts

Former Super Bowl-winning quarterback and current NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner stirred the pot last month when, asked if he preferred his sons not play football, he candidly responded, "Yes, I would. Can't make that choice for them if they want to, but there's no question in my mind."

He has since backed off that stance, but didn't until some of his peers roasted him. Included among them was ESPN's Merril Hoge, whose own playing career was cut short by chronic, devastating concussions. He called Warner's opinion "irresponsible and unacceptable."

Others disagree.

A couple of years ago, Adam Cohen, a general counsel for the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, wrote an essay for the New York Times about his 10-year-old son's reaction to a concussion he suffered during a youth game.

Young Will Cohen no longer plays. He instead runs track and cross country. And dad is hardly heartbroken.

"I was ecstatic [he quit football]," Adam said. "I am a football fan, have been a Philadelphia Eagles lover for 35 years. But I learned very quickly I had no desire to be a football parent, to have to vicariously worry about the sorts of permanent damage he might be doing to himself."

The testimonies of players who have come forward with tales of headaches and memory lapses and depression have so affected Cohen that he's reconsidering his relationship with the game as a fan.

"It brings up a great deal of conflict within me," he said. "Am I somehow complicit when I switch on the game on Sunday or we fly back [to Philadelphia] and go to Lincoln Financial Field and root on a big hit by Trent Cole? I wonder, is this something morally I need to step away from?"

For those who still have children in football, the quandaries are not quite so abstract.

"There's not one day that my sons hit the football field that I don't say a prayer: 'Please let them walk off as they walked on,' " said Stephanie Schuessler, whose older son Nick quarterbacked state Class AAAAA champion Grayson. He has signed with Mississippi State. His younger brother, Hunter, is coming up behind him as a Grayson quarterback.

She did her time in the hospital emergency room with Nick when he was only 12. A helmet-to-helmet hit resulted in a concussion.

"It makes you start thinking is this game really worth it? Is it worth the possible outcome if your son is hit hard?" she said.

Certainly, she said, she has friends who won't allow their sons to play football, who cannot justify the risk. In her family's case, ultimately, there is one reason to keep playing. "My boys love the game and telling them not to play football would be almost like telling them to stop breathing," Schuessler said.

Feelings take over

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are more than 55,000 cases of traumatic brain injury — concussions mostly — per year throughout all of high school football. More awareness has meant more reporting of concussions, and the growing numbers have prompted the CDC to declare sports-related traumatic brain injuries an epidemic.

Facts sometimes fail parents who are looking for a definitive to-play-or-not-to-play solution. Any long-term damage done by playing football has not been quantified. In fact, the CDC's Institute for Occupational Safety and Health just released a records-based study of more than 3,400 NFL players who were in the league for at least five years between 1959-1988 and found that they had a lower death rate than the general population. That included death by heart disease, cancer and, yes, suicide. The Institute plans to similarly study the incidence of early Alzheimer's and other cognitive issues.

Dr. Steve Kroll of Georgia Sports Medicine estimates that he has seen more than 1,000 concussion cases in the past two years. Maybe 20 percent of those involve football. Other sources may surprise you.

"One in particular is cheerleading," he said. "They don't have pads. They don't have helmets. And they actually suffer quite a few concussions."

In the absence of fact, feelings take over.

Attorney Hagen still insists that football is "the best sport for kids to play," even though he's heard firsthand from pros whose heads have been battered,

Kids "learn more about themselves and about what it takes to be part of a team from football than from anything else I've seen," said Hagen, who walked on for one season at Florida and still keeps personal contact with the game as a PA announcer for the North Springs High program. "I would not be the person I am today had it not been for my experience playing football."

Falcons receivers coach Terry Robiskie is football through and through, with three sons who have played collegiately. If asked if parents should allow their children to play, he said, he'd respond with a question.

"I'd simply ask you if your son has the desire to do it and if that's his dream," Robiskie said.

"As a parent you have a tough decision to make, but who are you to stop a kid from chasing his dream? All parents want to be protective. I think they're doing a lot of stuff that is very sound today [on player safety]. But understand if the decision is to play, there is a risk. There's a risk in all sports."

Kroll, the doctor who treats football's casualties, does not have a son. Parents ask him all the time if he did, would he want his boy playing football after suffering a concussion. His answer: "I say if given the proper treatment, yes, without a doubt."

The lawsuits and recent publicity have generated so much apprehension that there's now a healthy awareness about the incidence and treatment of concussions. And dealt with responsibly, concussions do not have to pose long-term problems, he said.

Is it his prognosis, then, that football will be ultimately safer for the turmoil it is undergoing now? "I sure hope so. ... I'd like to think so," Kroll said.

On such faith, children will play and mothers will pray and football marches on.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.