Reasonable people do unreasonable things. In 2010, LeBron James took a lot of crap after his overblown and poorly managed announcement that he was fleeing Cleveland in free agency. Much of that crap was entirely justified; James’s drawn-out dog-and-pony show gave off a strong whiff of self-importance, even before its comically arrogant culmination in ESPN’s disastrous one-off reality show, “The Decision.’’
But most critics conceded that, while “The Decision’’ was an abomination, the decision was sound. Why shouldn’t a 25-year-old at the height of his unprecedented basketball powers go work in Miami with his friends for $20 million a year? And everything went pretty much according to plan, as LeBron picked up a couple of NBA titles to go with a pair of MVP awards in four tidy seasons by the beach.
This summer, James exercised the free agency granted him by his maker and his union, returning home to return to Cleveland with a chance to win a few more rings while raising his family back home. That family includes two sons, 9-year-old LeBron Jr. and 7-year-old Bryce. With his family life now directly in front of him, LeBron James, dad, has demonstrated yet another piece of sound decision-making.
James recently told ESPN’s Chris Broussard that his boys can play all the basketball, baseball, and soccer they want, but football’s off the table (no word on lacrosse or fencing: Hey, LeBron, your sons are certified Rich Kids now, so you’ve got a lot more recreational rulings to consider). This is even more notable considering LeBron’s own schoolboy football prowess. It’s tough to predict how one set of talents will translate to an entirely different sport, but it’s pretty easy to imagine LeBron—or his progeny—being a nightmare-inducing uber-Gronk of a tight end.
One of the more stunning things I’ve learned this college-football-watching season is that Detroit Tiger outfielder Torii Hunter and NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson both have sons playing wide receiver for Notre Dame. This of course led to the requisite “Damn, I’m old’’ depression, but my second reaction was “Wait. Why would kids with their obvious financial and athletic advantages choose to play such a barbaric game? Shouldn’t they be at sailing practice or band rehearsal or something? Or just dominating the same safe sports their fathers did?’’
In many cases, the best young athletes are indeed choosing other sports. Youth football participation is on the decline. A 2013 Outside the Line report revealed a 10-percent decline in Pop Warner participation between 2010 and 2012, the biggest drop since the organization started keeping track.
I love football, despite the mounting evidence that it’s borderline immoral to do so. It’s is a brutal game, even if you somehow avoid the lingering effects of repeated head trauma. Never mind the seeming inevitability of concussions, young children’s brains shouldn’t be subjected to football for reasons of character development, either.
As demonstrated by last season’s Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin bullying bleep-show in Miami, football culture can be inherently cruel. I’m never going to defend Incognito, but it’s worth remembering how many of his coworkers around the league shrugged off reports of his systematic mental cruelty as “just football.’’ They’re right: sociopathic indifference to other people’s mental and physical well-being is baked into the game from the lowest levels of Pop Warner.
I’ll be the first to concede that not all football coaches are monomaniacal enablers of misanthropy, not all players turn into violent monsters, and not every ACL gets torn to shreds. But there’s way too much of all of the above to justify letting your children play football. I was shocked over the summer to learn that an otherwise smart friend of mine was letting his son join the freshman football team. To me it was like meeting a climate change denier or one of those nuts who think the CIA was behind 9/11: I knew they existed, but it never occurred to me that I walked among them every day.
I don’t discount the valuable lessons learned by being part of a team, working hard, making (reasonable) physical sacrifices on the way to reaching a goal, or any of the other ways organized sports can contribute to a child’s development. But none of these benefits are unique to football, which lacks a single positive attribute to distinguish it from other, less savage sports. There is no counterweight to all of the obvious and well documented ways that football harms its participants.
I haven’t said any of this to my misguided friend, because I’m a coward, and because, hey, it’s his kid. I realize I have no right to play armchair dad to any individual child. Parenting seems hard as hell, there are millions of decisions to make, and a bit of high school football isn’t the worst thing in the world. I don’t think football should be banned, for the same reason I don’t think Mountain Dew Big Gulps and trashy TV should be: Even though these things are unequivocally bad for you, they’re not dangerous enough to justify legally mandated prohibition.
There’s something to be said for a bit of pure, consequences-be-damned indulgence from time to time, or at least the right to it. Football is fun, after all, and fun is important. So I’m not looking to take the game away from anybody (other than my own fictional kid). But I’m also glad there are more and more parents like LeBron James out there with the good sense to realize that the risks outweigh the rewards.