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Promoting Football to Kids? Not Ditka

22 Jan, 2015

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Hall of Fame Coach Says He Would Not Allow a Child to Play Football in Today’s Environment

Lots of parents want their kids to enjoy the same sports they did.

Mike Ditka isn’t one of them.

In a recent interview on HBO's “Real Sports with Bryant Gumble” focusing on former pro football players who are suffering cognitive issues as a result of their days on the field, the NFL Hall of Famer said he would not, as a father, allow a son to play football these days.

“Nope,” Ditka states. “I wouldn't. And my whole life was football. I think the risk is worse than the reward. I really do.”

The segment, which aired on Tuesday, January 22, interviewed several former athletes who are now experiencing problems such as early onset dementia, as well as depression and memory loss. The “Real Sports” episode also focused on the use of drugs by a team Ditka coached: the NFL 1985 champion Chicago Bears. The NFL named Ditka Coach of the Year for his work that season, but the HBO report claims that Bears players regularly used painkillers and other drugs to play through injuries, much to their detriment later in life.

A Huffington Post article notes that Ditka confirmed to Gumbel that drugs were “plentiful” during his time in the NFL. “There’s no question about it,” he said.

Ditka’s comments validate the reason parents seem to be turning their children away from the gridiron. HuffPo also references a 2014 Bloomberg survey that found 50 percent of Americans don’t want their children to play football. Only 17 percent said they expect football to be more popular 20 years from now than it is today.

If football’s reputation for contact injuries is one reason for its decline in popularity, the bull’s-eye is drawn around the risk of concussions. The HuffPo article noted there were more than 120 concussions in the NFL in 2014 – and those are only the high-profile injuries. Injury statistics are largely undocumented from football played at the grade school, middle school, high school and college levels.

The sporting goods industry is trying to combat the problem by designing newer and safer helmets. Helmet manufacturer Schutt Sports recently teamed with Brain Sentry, a manufacturer of wearable impact sensors, to produce the ‘smart helmet’ that can help prevent and diagnose concussion injuries in sports. The companies’ first product, a $40 helmet, will be launched sometime this year. Schutt also manufactures helmets for lacrosse players.

 At the same time, LSU football is experimenting with an impact sensor located in a mouthguard manufactured by i1 Biometrics.

The timing of Ditka’s comments – and those of the players interviewed on Gumbel’s show – could not be worse. The country is poised on the eve of the Super Bowl, the NFL’s biggest showcase of the year.

If the sport has a chance to turn itself around and prove itself safer, improved helmets might be the first step. Ditka, for one, is keenly aware of the need to make things safer. After all, football is an economy unto itself, and for years, was supported by the players on the field whose bodies are now showing the wear and tear.

In his comments to Gumbel, Ditka noted, "You wouldn't have a damn job right now if it wasn't for those guys."

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