As a mother of triplet sons, I have always taken a keen interest in their safety. I suspect that all parents would say, if asked, that they put their kids' safety first — whether it is playing organized sports, at home, or riding their bike in the neighborhood. Many parents — particularly mothers, who have been the guardians of children at play since the dawn of time — not only talk that talk, but walk the walk, and are very protective.
I admit that, when it came to my sons' safety — and the safety of their teammates, I fell — and still fall — at that end of the spectrum, because I feel that, while life always involves some degree of risk, childhood should be a time when it is our responsibility as parents to minimize those risks and make it one of our highest priorities.
I remember when my son, Spencer, was playing junior varsity football. My mother's intuition told me that it wasn't a good idea. He was one of those gifted kids who played 100% on defense and 100% of offense. I was worried about what all those hits to the head and blows to the chest were doing to his brain, and, even though he never suffered a hit that actually knocked him out, I was aware that he had suffered three previous concussions, one while snowboarding, one sledding and one at summer camp. I suspected something was dangerously wrong when, in his last game his sophomore year in 1999, I saw him wandering around on defense, seemingly in a daze, unable to remember where he was supposed to play.
That week, I took him to see Cheryl Weinstein, a neuropsychologist at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. After a battery of neuropsychological tests (the pencil and paper kind), Dr. Weinstein carefully explained that Spencer risked permanent brain damage if he continued playing lacrosse and football. I agonized over the decision, but ultimately decided to be "better to be safe than sorry."
It was a decision Spencer found incredibly difficult to comprehend and accept. He loved playing football and lacrosse (coincidentally, the two boys' sports with the highest concussion rates). Like just about every boy his age, he enjoyed being part of a team. He was proud to wear his crimson and gold football jacket to school. As a football player, he enjoyed his elevated status on the high school social pecking order.
His coaches loved him as well. I will never forget the football awards banquet two years earlier when Spencer's 8th grade coach, in awarding him the MVP trophy, had praised his apparent willingness to, as he put it, "run through brick walls" to make a tackle.
The decision not to allow him to continue playing was one that I had a hard time defending. It meant that I, and particularly Spencer's dad, would have give up something we enjoyed: watching him play and being part of the tight-knit community of football parents that exists at virtually every high school in this country, although probably not as close-knit as the one I came to know in Newcastle, Oklahoma during the filming in 2012 of our high school football documentary, "The Smartest Team.")
My only regret, looking back, isn't that I took away from Spencer something he loved, but that I didn't do it sooner; that I didn't fully appreciate earlier that Spencer's learning disabilities, the amount of time his coaches kept him in the game (100% on defense and 100% on offense) and his willingness, in the words of his coach, to run through brick walls, put him at serious risk of permanent cognitive impairment. [Again, I didn't know it at the time, but would later find out that learning disabilities, the way an athlete plays the game, and the sport he plays would come to be considered so-called modifying factors in concussion management and determining whether it is safe to continuing playing collision sports like football and lacrosse, particularly with a multiple concussion history].