Pop Warner has made efforts to make football safer for kids. But it's not easy changing an entire culture:
The boys on the teams were as young as 10, and, because of rules about safety, none could weigh more than 120 pounds. Shortly after 3 p.m. at McMahon Field in Southbridge, though, things quickly became worse. Six plays into the game, another Brave was removed after a hard hit. An official with the Tantasqua team said the eyes of one of the boys were rolling back in his head. But the game, an obvious mismatch between teams from neighboring towns in central Massachusetts, went on, with Southbridge building a 28-0 lead in the first quarter. The game went on without the officials intervening. It went on despite the fact that the Braves, with three of their players already knocked out of the game, no longer had the required number of players to participate. Even with what are known as "mercy rules"—regulations designed to limit a dominant team's ability to run up scores—the touchdowns kept coming, and so did the concussions. When the game ended, the final score was 52-0, and five preadolescent boys had head injuries, the last hurt on the final play of the game.
Both coaches were ultimately suspended after parents complained, and the referees were barred from officiating. But even the parents were divided.
"We were trying to play a football game," one parent of a Tantasqua player wrote in an e-mail. "Every kid who was out there wanted to play and not give up."
The game obviously should have been stopped. But having been a football dad, I can't really tell you that before my recent conversion, had I been there, I would have felt the need to make that argument. I think part of this is that parents like me are looking for ways to teach their kids to value toughness and competition. When we were kids, a lot of us learned those values through violence. In the best times the violence was controlled, but it wasn't always.
Now we find ourselves in an era wherein not only have the norms shifted, but it is good that they have shifted. I didn't really have to "guilted" out of football fandom. I believed the case as it was made. But with these old ways leaving us, I often find myself struggling for substitutes, for new ways to communicate old values. There's a lot to be said for not giving up. But there's as much to be said for imagination. Imagination is how we find these other ways.