Care and Feeding

I Can’t Believe This Dumb Sport Is About to Ruin My Great Co-Parenting Relationship

Sorry, but this is a hill I will die on.

A young boy in a football uniform holding the ball.
Photo illustration by Slate. Phtoo by LSOphoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My son is currently in 4th grade. His father and I are no longer together. My son and his father want him to start in a football league next year—he needs to sign up by March, but training starts in the summer and the actual season is in the fall. I am opposed to this—I think the risks of playing tackle football are too high. If you’d asked me a couple decades ago, I would’ve said it was fine. But so much research about CTE and other issues has come out that I can’t be okay with it?

How can I convince them that tackle football is a bad idea? If I can’t, is this the sort of thing that can be decided in family court? To me, this is a hill worth dying on. Our co-parenting has always been amicable so we’ve never had to make any decisions through mediation before.

— There Are So Many Other Sports

Dear Many Other Sports,

OK, so here’s the deal. Currently, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation basically amounts to the idea that parents should weigh the risk of injury against the benefits of playing tackle football. (You can inform yourself about those risks here.) But based on their review of the data, the Concussion Legacy Foundation recommends enrolling children in flag football only under the age of 14. And even many NFL players have come out and said they would not let their own children play tackle football before high school. Starting with a flag league first could be a way to meet in the middle

Here’s the plot twist though: My 11-year-old son just completed his first season of flag football, during which he … got a concussion when another player’s knee connected with head while diving for a flag. There is some measure of risk when kids play any sport. That said, my son first got into organized sports on the heels of a truly crushing first year in COVID lockdown, and watching him transform physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially was a miracle I will always be grateful for.

I wouldn’t be comfortable with letting an 8-year-old play tackle football either. And given how strongly you feel, and that this is ultimately about your son’s safety, I do think it’s worth taking the issue to mediation if your ex isn’t willing to compromise. But I think it’s also important to remember that there can be some pretty significant benefits to sports participation.

Like so many parenting decisions, it’s all an ongoing series of risk assessments. No matter what sport your son ends up playing, remember to further mitigate risk by doing your research on current best practices, making sure coaches adhere to updated safety rules and guidelines during games and practices, familiarizing yourself with concussion protocols, and by insisting your son always wears appropriate protective gear that fits him properly.


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