Skip to main content

Make football safe for our kids

By Roxanne Jones, Special to CNN
updated 11:45 AM EST, Thu January 31, 2013
Trainers attend to a University of Oregon player hurt in a football game in Corvallis, Oregon, on November 24, 2012.
Trainers attend to a University of Oregon player hurt in a football game in Corvallis, Oregon, on November 24, 2012.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Roxanne Jones has always loved football, but says it's time to recognize its risks
  • Evidence mounting that playing football can result in dangerous brain injuries
  • Jones: The game needs rules to make it safer or more parents won't let sons play
  • Change will be very difficult, she says, but it's time to set up better safeguards

Editor's note: Roxanne Jones is a founding editor of ESPN The Magazine and a former vice president at ESPN. She is a national lecturer on sports, entertainment and women's topics and a recipient of the 2010 Woman of the Year award from Women in Sports and Events. She is the co-author of "Say It Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete" (Random House) and CEO of Push Media Strategies. She's working on her second book.

(CNN) -- Growing up, I wanted to be Too Tall Jones, the Hall of Fame defensive end for the Dallas Cowboys.

The way I saw it, I already had the last name. And I was oversized, much taller than the other girls -- and the boys for that matter. So in my mind I was Too Tall. No one could tell me different.

It made me feel special to walk around the neighborhood with that nickname. Too Tall was a superstar. So I was, too -- and not just the gangly girl some people saw trying to find her way.

Roxanne Jones
Roxanne Jones

My scruffy friends and I would play tackle football for hours in a dusty patch behind my building. And I would charge the field, screaming with unbridled joy, crushing anything in my path.

No pads. No flags. No rules.

Getting injured? Nobody worried about such nonsense.

But those days are long gone. Today, though few things bring me greater joy than football, I am at a crossroads. It's obvious we need new rules to save the game and protect players. No one can ignore the mounting medical evidence that brain damage sustained in football, as well as other contact sports, is linked to serious health problems, including depression, dementia, suicide and death from respiratory problems.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



The discussion has even reached the White House. Last week, President Obama weighed in, urging the NCAA to address the serious health hazards in the college game. This week, the NFL players union announced it has given Harvard University a $100 million contract to conduct a 10-year study on concussions and other health issues associated with the game.

For me, it is not only a question of whether the multimillionaire NFL pros are being protected. You don't have to be a sports insider to understand that the tragic death of Junior Seau and the serious health problems of many retired NFL players demand changes in the way football is played. There really is no choice.

But football is also putting our kids in danger.

$100M study focuses on NFL player health
The dangers of America's game
Explain it to me: Concussions

Research, such as a study done by Boston University School of Medicine, has identified serious brain damage, or CTE -- chronic traumatic encephalopathy -- not only in the autopsied brains of professional football players but in at least one high school player's brain as well.

More than ever before, parents are terrified of putting their boys on the field and, understandably, refuse to let their kids play football.

Even Obama, a big football fan, told The New Republic that if he had a son, he would "have to think long and hard" about whether he would let him play, because of the potential of getting injured.

And those parents who allow their kids to play football want safer rules and better oversight.

"My son was kickoff returner. I couldn't even watch." said Paige Hockman, whose oldest boy was a star player at Vestavia Hills High, a public school outside of Birmingham, Alabama.

"You are watching 11 huge boys fly downfield and their goal is to kill your child, just to knock a ball loose. It's the scariest part of the game. If anything could be done on the kickoff where the momentum (would be) slowed down, I would be all for that," she said. "Maybe we could do away with the kickoff completely."

Hockman is a football mom. She understands well that even a small rule change, such as eliminating the kickoff, might cause a nationwide revolt. But she also knows her job is to keep her boys safe.

When her 10th-grader, a lineman at Vestavia, was recently sidelined for more than two weeks with a concussion after a dirty hit in practice, his mother didn't panic. She is confident that the school is following the stringent injury policy mandated by the state of Alabama.

But Vestavia Hills High is rare. It is a well-funded school district where most of the parents are college-educated, Hockman said. The football team has a trainer and team doctor, who regularly communicate with parents.

Other players and families might not be as fortunate.

"It's very different in Podunk, Alabama, schools, where parents and coaches are less educated and more concerned about winning than safety for the children," Hockman said. "I hate to say it, but economics make a big difference. They don't do things the right way in those schools."

Ex-NFL stars after concussions: Lives unraveled

Football's a dirty, dangerous game. It's never been for the fainthearted, and that's part of the appeal. But in order to save the game, and stop parents from steering their kids away from the gridiron, new rules are necessary. The game will have to be safer to attract future generations.

Change might have to come first from the ranks, where parents' impact is still greater than that of big-money TV deals and wealthy alumni boosters. Change may come from schools like Vestavia Hills High, or even from the Pop Warner organization, the nation's oldest youth football and cheerleading program, where an estimated 250,000 kids play football across the country.

Pop Warner's executive director, Jon Butler, is taking safety more seriously these days, thinking of new rules and creative ways to better train volunteer coaches.

His organization created a medical advisory board of neurologists and neurosurgeons to examine how to avoid and detect concussions. It has decided to immediately take any child with a head or neck injury out of the game, and to require a doctor's note to allow that child to play again.

The group has set limits on how long each player can stay in a game and how much contact is allowed during practices. Coaches cannot spend more than a third of practice time in full speed contact. And no full-speed drills can start more than three yards apart.

Butler envisions a time when brain scans will be mandatory each season for all children who want to play football. He wants to use this technology to identify kids who are most susceptible to brain injuries. And those players, he said, would be directed to other sports with less contact and fewer collisions.

Good luck selling those ideas to the NCAA or the NFL and its player unions -- or even some parents. But I think Butler is headed in the right direction. He's putting player safety first.

Call me silly, but I think a kid should be able to dream about becoming an NFL star playing in the Super Bowl -- a safe Super Bowl. Who knows? She might just become a superstar on her own field on the way to the Big Game.

Follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Roxanne Jones.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:50 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT