Why playing football appeals to families in spite of dangers
SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
Across the U.S., fewer and fewer kids are playing tackle football. That's largely due to concerns about concussions and other types of injuries. The National Institutes of Health says every year spent playing tackle football creates a 15% increase in the chance of getting a traumatic brain injury. That means parents and their children have to decide if the risks are worth it. A group of University of Maryland journalism students recently looked into who is playing tackle football and why, and what they learned may be surprising. Journalism professor Kevin Blackistone and one of his students, Sapna Bansil, are with us to explain what they found. Hi to both of you.
KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Hello.
SAPNA BANSIL: Thank you for having us.
PFEIFFER: So I'm going to give the spoiler upfront, which is that you found that Black and Hispanic parents are more likely than white parents to let their kids play football. Before we get into why that is, I want to know whether you learned in your research whether white and Black and Hispanic families are all equally aware of the serious injury risks of football. Do they all share that common knowledge?
BANSIL: Yeah. So I think part of our perspective on this is informed by a poll that we commissioned with Ipsos. We found that, you know, large majorities of parents, regardless of race, believe that kids shouldn't start playing tackle football until they're 10 or older. And we found that many parents believe that playing football is dangerous for young people.
PFEIFFER: So if they're all equally aware, why are Black and Hispanic families more likely than white families to let their kids play the game?
BANSIL: Sure. So I think one of the big findings from the poll is that Black and Hispanic parents were much more likely than white parents to sort of see youth tackle football as a path to certain opportunities, like college scholarships and NFL careers as well. That's sort of kind of informing our understanding of why football continues to remain a draw, maybe, in certain communities.
PFEIFFER: Sapna, you did some reporting in Lexington, Miss., a rural town that produces elite college football players, I believe, at one of the highest per capita rates in the country. Tell us more about what life is like in Lexington, as you learned during your reporting.
BANSIL: Yeah. So that's a story that I reported with another student, Jenna Bloom. And what we found when we went there is, as the people who live there say, there's not a lot to do. You know, there's no swimming pools, no tennis courts, no fast-food restaurants, no movie theaters. And in a place where there's sort of little opportunity, they sort of have turned to football as both a means of recreational activity and also as a path to something better.
We've been talking a lot about college scholarships and possibly playing in the NFL. I don't think people are unaware that the odds of that are slim. Even for those people who don't make it to the highest levels, the highest forms of glory, they still view football - at a minimum, it's - it teaches discipline. It's a means of socialization. It, you know, teaches teamwork. It teaches you how to deal with adversity, that football offers lots of benefits just in terms of teaching life lessons and opening doors and those kinds of things.
PFEIFFER: So overall, though, how realistic is that dream of the big college scholarship or going professional and making big money?
BLACKISTONE: I would just say that it's very realistic because, you know, sports has created these stories where it has made this one particular person, the first person in their family to be able to go to college and to pay for that college education with their blood, sweat and tears - that's a real thing. And, you know, one data point that's not in the story because this wasn't something we were looking at, but it always comes to mind with me - and it's a study done by Shaun Harper, who studies race and sports out at USC. He found that at Power Five schools, no more than 3% of undergraduate enrollments are made up of Black males. But when you look at the football team, you're talking half of that team and maybe upwards of 60%. So the path for Black males to get into elite colleges in this country may be much easier - or maybe we've suggested to them that it's much easier for them to do so - as an athlete, particularly in the sport of football, than it is to do so just as a student.
PFEIFFER: Is there anyone you interviewed where the kid didn't end up going places but maybe even got injured, and there are any regrets on behalf of the family?
BANSIL: You know, like I said, we did some reporting in a community called Buford, Ga., which is a suburban Atlanta community. And we sort of found something of the opposite of what you just asked, which is we found somebody who is an alum of the football league that's located in Buford but is really located in surrounding Gwinnett County as well. And he's an attorney today, in part because he got a law school letter of recommendation from his college football coach. He mentioned that he used to have - experience headaches because of football. He's had concussions and things like that, but he would have absolutely no reservations about his son, who is currently an infant, if his son grew up one day and said, I want to play football.
PFEIFFER: Kevin, clearly, a lot of these families see football as the main opportunity to have a different life than the one they have now. But do they see any other alternative paths for higher ed or professional success?
BLACKISTONE: Well, you know, maybe in a place like Lexington, Miss., maybe not. This is what they see. And what will they be doing this weekend? They'll be watching the Super Bowl. And who will they see in the Super Bowl? They'll see mostly Black male athletes starring for two teams. It's a issue of representation. It's a issue of whether or not you can envision yourself doing something else other than playing this sport of football or maybe basketball.
PFEIFFER: That's Professor Kevin Blackistone and Sapna Bansil from the University of Maryland. Thanks to both of you for this interesting research.
BLACKISTONE: Thank you.
BANSIL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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