LeBron James matters.
Obviously, James’ move back to Cleveland increased ticket sales for the Cavaliers, decreased fan interest in the Miami Heat (a team that has always suffered from inconsistent fan interest) and opened up the possibility of some team from the East other than the team James is on making the NBA Finals.
But on Nov. 7, James made headlines by telling reporters that his sons, LeBron Jr. (10) and Bryce (7), would not be allowed to play football.
“Only basketball, baseball and soccer are allowed in my house,’’ James said.
James added that his decision against football was related to the health dangers that exist in playing football.
Of course, President Barack Obama said the same thing, although his statements were less tangible since he has daughters and not sons, and girls are much less likely to want to play football than boys.
All of this negative attention on playing football relates to the very recent (in terms of the history of professional football) concern over concussions. After decades of not caring that football players’ brains were turned to pudding after years of knocking heads, suddenly everyone is concerned about the long-lasting effects of concussions and brain-related trauma.
That concern extends to the parents of children who play the game of football with helmets while in elementary school. Science tells us the brains of children are in particular danger of damage and parents are taking heed.
Youth football program participation is down in many parts of the country as parents either push their children (mostly male) toward other sports or simply tell them “no’’ when they ask to play football.
It is hard to say what the effect of such decisions will be on the National Football League. There are still enough players to take all of the roster spots on college teams, and the NFL gets its players from college rosters, so participation numbers don’t seem likely to change the league’s prospects for the foreseeable future.
Of course, there is concern among NFL owners and league officials that less young players playing the game will create less players interested in watching the game at the highest level, although there are no numbers to indicate that is yet the case.
Since August of 2013, soon after the league settled its most recent court case related to concussion damage among former NFL players, the league began hosting events around the country called “Moms Football Safety Clinics” in conjunction with USA Football, which sponsors youth leagues around the nation. The most recent one was hosted by the Detroit Lions, and moms were put through physical paces to show how football players train before they were offered the chance to listen and speak to trainers and NFL officials about safety matters.
“This is not about marketing,’’ said Lions president Tom Lewand in an interview with USA Today. “The real value is in the information that they’re getting about safety in our game. If we can use our bully pulpit as the NFL to carry this message to a lot more moms and parents than we might otherwise, that’s an obligation that we have. We have to get the rest of the story out there, because there is a lot of fear in the air.”
It is uncertain what “the rest of the story’’ is. The NFL has changed its rules regarding helmet-to-helmet hits, which are the most noticeable cause of concussions in football, but players’ heads hit the ground as often as they do other players’ helmets, and no one is going to be able to legislate against gravity.
The Detroit event included a question and answer session in which some moms said they are dealing with peer pressure, either because other moms think they are being too protective in keeping their children out of the game, or because other moms think they are making a mistake by letting their son play football.
While there are obviously far more pressing issues parents have to deal with, this one hurts. Parents do not want to deny their children an opportunity to do what their friends are doing, but in this case, they are thinking long term, which affects a group of people (children) who don’t know what long-term thinking is.
The interest in the NFL is still beyond belief. Fantasy football is a major economic force in the United States, and gambling on the NFL is the No. 1 gaming interest in the country. It is simply not going to go anywhere just because some mom, or LeBron James, decides not to let a son play football.