Like many longtime football fans, sportscaster Bob Costas had struggled to weigh the sport's appeal against its risks. On Monday he said that he would not advise parents to let their children play football, citing the sport’s “extreme dangers” to a player’s body and mind.
“I’d tell them no,” Costas said to an audience member of a Slate.com podcast who asked his advice. “I know that goes viral tomorrow….Maybe the better answer is: be advised of the extreme dangers, know what you’re getting into. But let me put it this way: if it were my son and he was 13 years old and had reasonable athletic ability I would encourage him to play baseball, or to play basketball or to play soccer or something other than football.”
Costas has long been a critic of American football’s violence (and its celebration of violence). In a talk with The New York Times sports columnist Bob Lipsyte last year, Costas called the game “unacceptably brutal.”
His criticism is founded in decades of data showing that injuries sustained while playing football, particularly injuries to the head, have long-lasting effects on players’ minds, memories, and motor skills. Earlier this year, the National Football League paid a settlement of $765 million to 4,500 retired players who incurred enduring injuries. The plaintiffs claimed that the NFL did not accurately warn them about these kinds of risks.
Longtime Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre admitted last month that he could not remember his daughter playing youth soccer one summer, and said that the memory lapse “put a little fear in me.” Before retiring in 2011, Favre played 321 straight games.
The risk is just as severe for younger players. A recent study by researchers at the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences found that players as young as seven were shown to have sustained hits of equal magnitude to those of their older counterparts.
“The professionals have a players union to protect them, but in many ways, the athletes that need the most protection have the least formal protection,” neurologist Vernon Williams said in September.
It’s becoming clear as well that football’s “extreme dangers” include threats to a player’s psychological wellbeing. The recent story of Jonathan Martin’s departure from the Miami Dolphins after being apparently bullied by his teammates has thrown light on a culture of locker room hazing in the NFL.
Costas has weighed in about a number of professional sport’s most controversial issues. Only a few weeks ago, he suggested during a Sunday Night Football broadcast that the Washington Redskins consider changing their name, due to its derogatory connotations to Native Americans.
In the Slate.com podcast, Costas was careful to highlight the difference between football players in general and the bad eggs:
“I know many many thoughtful people who have been involved in football their entire life,” he said, “coaches, players who belie the stereotype of what we’ve got, or think we’ve got, coming out of the Dolphins locker room, very thoughtful people where football has shaped their lives in a positive way, so I’m not going to paint everyone with a broad brush.”
But the NBC sportscaster still said he would keep his children from choosing football as the sport to pursue. The dangers are real and documented, and violence isn’t just part of the culture of football, it is football.