Editor’s note: The NFL reached a $765 million settlement Thursday with more than 4,500 former players who had sued the league over head trauma and other debilitating injuries suffered during their careers. This opinion column was originally published in May 2012, following the suicide of former NFL star linebacker Junior Seau. It was written by Jonathan Anker, a producer with HLNtv.com and a parent of two boys. He is an avid football fan.
"Just lay him down in the center of the bed and let's get ready."
My wife and I had big Saturday night plans, which -- as the leisure time-starved new parents of a 7-month-old son -- meant we actually had any plans at all.
He was still too young to really move around anywhere, so I placed him in the middle of that bed and went back to getting myself ready to go.
Three minutes later came the "thud." And then the crying.
My wife and I raced back to the bed, on which our little guy was no longer lying. He had somehow managed to squirm his way off the side and, of course, we freaked out. Thank goodness I had procrastinated putting my laundry away and his fall was gently broken by a large, cushy stack of neatly folded t-shirts.
We quickly ran a number of "tests" any physician would likely have laughed at to make sure he hadn't injured his head or neck and made sure he could still move those tiny arms and legs without any obvious pain. He checked out perfectly fine and after a few minutes, our heart rates began to return to normal. Big exhale.
Our son was tiny and helpless back then. But I can't imagine my instinct to keep him safe and protect him from injury will ever be any different, whether he's 7 months old, 7 years old or 17 years old. Why would our concern for the well-being of our children ever be any different at any point in their lives?
This is why I'll never let him play tackle football.
What's changed? Now we know the toll of the hits
When, in 2012, I heard about Junior Seau's stunningly tragic suicide at just 43 years old, I couldn't help but immediately wonder what toll the game Seau loved and dominated may have played in his death. To be clear, there is absolutely no proof or even indication right now that the cumulative effect of all Seau's gridiron collisions contributed to any kind of depressive thoughts or degenerative mental condition. We don't know why he killed himself. We may never know.
But we do know it's happened in other instances. After former Chicago Bears standout Dave Duerson committed suicide in 2011, an analysis of his brain revealed he suffered from a trauma-induced disease found in at least 20 other football players who have passed away, according to the Sports Legacy Institute.
Former Philadelphia Eagle Andre Waters was 44 when he killed himself in 2006. Studies found his brain, according to Sports Illustrated, "resembled what one would expect in an 85-year-old man in the early stages of Alzheimer's."
Knowing this, and knowing how prevalent and often undiagnosed concussions are at even the lower levels of football (to say nothing of all the other serious injuries accepted as "just a part of the game" in football), why would any parent choose to enlist their child to join these ranks? To volunteer them to have their heads smacked around inside plastic cages? Children have been playing tackle football for generations, yes, but only recently have we become aware of what it's doing to them.
"You know, there are other sports out there."
Committing suicide of course would be an extreme and relatively rare outcome for football-related trauma, but how many other serious issues pop-up among football players -- of any age -- for having taken all these shots to the head? How many cases of depression? How many instances of memory loss or other declining cognitive functions? Or even debilitating migraines?
I'm a big-time football fan, have been since childhood. As I sit here, a small action figure of ex-Miami Dolphins wide receiver Mark Clayton stares back at me on my desk. But forgive me if I'm not racing out the door to fit my son with a helmet and shoulder pads. You know, there are other sports out there. The world needs teachers and doctors. It does not need football players.
There are no "life lesson" benefits of playing football so unique to the game that they can't be achieved through other sports. Social skills, exercise, discipline, self-esteem, learning how to deal with success and failure -- all these valuable tools can be taught through football. And baseball. And tennis. Heck, even flag football -- and any number of other sports children can play, which don't come with a warning label that could read "Caution: The basic tenets of this game have been linked to catastrophic injury."
Super Bowl MVP worries about his own children
And it seems even those in the sports community are starting to take a hard look at the dire price tag attached to the game's appeal.
After Seau's death, Sports Illustrated writer Jeff Pearlman tweeted, "Junior Seau dead, suicide suspected. Shocked and saddened. I'll say it now: My kids will never be allowed to play organized football. Ever"
Another concerned sports dad went on national radio a day later and echoed those same thoughts -- that the game had become too risky, its consequences now too well-known to ignore. "It scares me as a dad," said two-time NFL MVP Kurt Warner. Asked by sports radio host Dan Patrick if he'd prefer his own kids not play, the Super Bowl-winning quarterback admitted, "Yes, I would. Can't make that choice for them. But yeah, there's no question in my mind."
More parents seem to be reaching the same conclusion, that the best way to prevent these types of injuries is to just eliminate the risk. Because it's one thing if you lay your child in the middle of a bed and they accidentally roll off. It's another thing entirely if you place them right at the edge.
Follow Jonathan Anker on Twitter @JonFromHLN