Skip to main content

Make football safe for our kids

By Roxanne Jones, Special to CNN
January 31, 2013 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
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
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1340 GMT (2140 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT