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This story first appeared in the Dec. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
I have become utterly conflicted, hypocritical and generally torn when trying to process my feelings regarding concussions and player safety in football.
“Don’t let kids play football,” wrote Dr. Bennet Omalu, whose bold work is well documented in Peter Landesman’s new film Concussion. “We have a legal age for drinking alcohol; for joining the military; for voting; for smoking; for driving; and for consenting to have sex. We must have the same when it comes to protecting the organ that defines who we are as human beings,” Omalu argues.
“God did not intend for man to play football,” states Will Smith in his outstanding performance in the film.
Wow. Much of this is hard to argue. Young kids should probably not play tackle football. I know this intellectually, but emotionally, I’m conflicted. I love this sport. I grew up playing and adoring football. I love the brotherhood, teamwork, athletic grace that borders on superhuman, grit, pressure and, yes, contact. I love the contact.
About three months ago, a well-dressed woman in her late 30s walked into the Wild Card West boxing gym in Santa Monica, where I am a co-owner. Trailing behind her in Vans and a Drake T-shirt was a young blond boy with his eyes downcast, looking shifty and guilty.
I was sitting with a half-dozen of our members, men and women, who for a multitude of different reasons are drawn to a sport that, for us, is an addictive, limit-testing activity.
“Is this the boxing gym?” the mother asked loudly and to no one in particular. I engaged: “Yes, ma’am, it is.”
She moved in on me. “Is there someone here who can punch my son in the face?”
“Do you want to sign your son up for our youth class?” I responded, as I watched her son slowly kicking his toe into the concrete floor.
“I want my son to understand that life is hard and I want him punched in the face.”
I told the woman that we would sign the boy up, teach him how to box, and if appropriate, get him sparring and that when sparring, there was a good chance that he would be punched pretty hard, in his face. “Terrific,” she said and immediately signed him up, saying he’d be ready for the next Sunday class.
The kid is now a regular participant in our youth program. He has worked hard, learned the basics of offense, defense, footwork and conditioning. He has sparred and, much to his mother’s delight, the young man from the Westside of L.A. has been punched in the face. He loves it.
So, concussions. Obviously they are real. Obviously you can get one playing football. (Girls soccer has a higher concussion rate, FYI). Other obvious realities: The NFL does not love talking about concussions. Parents have become over-reactive to concussions, pulling kids out of school for two weeks and quarantining them to dark rooms until they are issued a return to play. We have moved into a much safer and tremendously more vigilant posture with regard to concussions in all sports. And the big obvious: There is no way to avoid concussions in football or virtually any other sport save maybe golf.
We will play football. We will box and play lacrosse and ice hockey and snowboard and surf and drive fast cars, climb trees and do dozens of things that we know are potentially concussive. We will do this because we are human and animals, and we like speed and contact and aggressive maneuvering and all such things. There is nothing that can change this. It is unchangeable. It is, for those who feel this impulse, part of the human condition.
For me, concussion response is pure common sense. We can all probably handle a few mild concussions. I have had at least three, and despite my detractors’ opinions, I am mentally and physically fine. Parents, family members, coaches, the NFL Players Association and the NFL are all doing a better job of monitoring and responding to serious head injuries. Boxing and UFC refs and doctors are stopping fights much faster than they did in the past. Players at all levels, in all sports, are being pulled out when they display legit concussive symptoms. Yes, the Mike Webster and Junior Seau stories, and others well detailed in Landesman’s film, are tragic and cautionary tales of what can happen to the brain after year upon year of repeated and untreated head trauma. They are the exception, and from the hundreds of ex-NFL, high school and college players I have met, not the norm.
Football is the most dangerous sport; probably the most dangerous activity behind only military combat, and it’s not for everyone. Anyone thinking about letting their child play needs to educate themselves and communicate with coaches in order to understand the risks involved and the concussive protocols in place, but we should not stop playing football.
Life is, and should be, a little hard. Getting punched in the face or getting an occasional concussion will probably happen to us all at some point in our lives. We can handle it. As long as we are vigilant about how we heal and what risks we feel are justifiable for our children and ourselves, we cannot live in disproportionate fear of a concussion. I say we all calm down and play some ball.
I’m a movie director, not a neurologist, so take all this for what it’s worth. The opinion of a guy who still loves football but admittedly is happy that his son is playing lacrosse.
The Westside mom at our boxing gym felt this to be true. I agree with her.
Berg is the executive producer of the upcoming History docuseries Live to Tell.
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