By Niloofar Howe
It’s football season- so while this blog is a little off topic, as I keep my fingers crossed that the Cowboys will make the playoffs (thank God for the NFC East), it feels somehow relevant.
About this time last year, my oldest son William, a wonderfully sensitive 8-year-old who builds robots and publishes a daily newsletter in his spare time, announced that he wanted to play football in the fall. Not flag but tackle football, with full padding. My husband, David, was the picture of a supportive father. Despite the fact that we have been advised since he was about 4 years old that he needs to get into contact sports (including by two absolutely lovely 2nd grade teachers), I was completely against it.
I follow sports enough to know that football leads the catastrophic injury statistics. Also, more so than almost any other sport, until their bodies have undergone teenage transformation, most boys will have no idea what kind of player they can be. But from a cost/benefit point of view, it’s not an easy call. I don’t aspire for my children to be professional athletes, but I do want sports to be part of their lives. In order to best use their incredible brains to create (engineering), innovate (physics and math) or save lives (medicine), they need to learn to work in teams, across disciplines and with different types of people. Competitive team sports are a great way to learn that. And truth be told, I also love football. I covered it as a sports writer in college, I lose money in our NFL pool every year, and despite griping about being a football widow each fall, I probably watch more games than my husband.
So while as a mom I occasionally see the world as an amalgamation of things that can hurt my children, I also know that playing competitive sports (in the context of a great education) is important and fun. I told David that I’d be fine with William playing as long as I had nothing to do with it. He had to sign him up and arrange for him to get to practice every day — no easy feat given that our chosen league, Maplewood, is in Maryland, we live in downtown DC and practices were every day in August and 3 times per week when school started. I figured that given the logistical challenges, it would never happen. But it did.
And as it turned out, when August rolled around and daily practices began, David got called out of town for work. I arranged for a babysitter to transport William, but he couldn’t do it the first week, so I begrudgingly agreed to take over for that week, secretly curious to see what his new league was all about.
I arrived at the Maplewood football field to join more than 100 players ages 6 to 12, at least 100 parents and 30 coaches. I was very skeptical.
For about 5 minutes.
And then it was like I had downed 100 gallons of Maplewood football Kool-Aid in an instant. There was something about that first day – the speeches that the coaches gave, the sense of family that they created, of respect for the sport and for the team, and the hard core, no-nonsense practice they began. It set off every competitive neuron in my body. I was home. The youngest kids were 6 and William was 8 and a newcomer but no one got it easy … and no one got it rough. Coaches would push the kids, yell at them (I could see the smile on their face though) and demand that they put 100% on the field from that first day. Many of the coaches had played college football. I was completely overwhelmed by the high caliber of coaching and the commitment these coaches made to Maplewood, to football and to our boys.
For the rest of August, I discharged the babysitter and changed my schedule around so I could be at practice every day. I went with my iPad and my iPhone and set up my temporary office on the sideline. I was fascinated. The first day William practiced with a helmet he ran up to me during a water break, took off his helmet, pointed at his soaking wet head of hair, and said, “look mom … sweat! I’m sweating.” This child of mine who does three sports each season had apparently never broken a sweat before. There was a brutal summer heat wave last August that caused our puppy Thor to collapse — the vet ordered me not to let him outside for the remainder of August because it was too hot. William, however, practiced every day in that brutal summer heat and never complained. That was new. The first time he tackled and flattened a kid, there was an overwhelming sense of pride that was unavoidable.
During the course of the season, four coaches took a group of 6- to 8-year-old boys weighing between 45 and 80lbs who had not only never played together but had mostly never played football, and taught them to love the game in all its nuances. They taught them to give it their all and lay it on the line. The dad/coaches on William’s team were all professionals with BIG jobs (really big jobs) and they showed up for every hour of practice, August through November. I learned later that they were sketching plays during their work day and holding conference calls late into the night. The kids played through August’s heat and winter’s freezing rain. There was one game where every player sobbed through four quarters of horrible weather – frigid wind and icy rain — without asking to be pulled out. Parents and spectators took shelter in their cars, but these little kids played till they physically couldn’t. Watching games and practices, you couldn’t pick who was the coaches’ son and who wasn’t. Every parent of an athlete knows what I mean by that.
On the sideline at games, sporting my “Maplewood Mama” sweatshirt with pride, I was yelling my head off and ringing cowbells. As were the other moms — many just like me, unwillingly pulled into football by their husbands, now embarrassing everyone with their screaming (“HIT ‘EM HARD!” “MAKE IT HURT!”) as the dads cringed in horror and moved far away. I looked forward to chain duty because it got me on the field and closer to the action.
I know it’s not the NFL — I get it, but there’s just something about football that’s unlike any other sport to watch. Eleven children, each with a specific job, all modern-day gladiators, hurling their bodies to clear a path for a teammate, or get into the end zone. That’s what football players do. In one of our games, our running back was trying to get into the open to score and the largest player on the opposing team was about to take him down when out of nowhere one of our younger players threw one of the best blocks I’ve seen. You could hear the block from the stands. This selfless athlete hurled his body at someone much bigger than himself to clear the path for his teammate. In what other sport do you see a 7-year-old do that, and then get up and do it again?
By the end of the season, my colleagues and friends surely grew tired of hearing me rave about football while recalling the play-by-play of each game. The kids on William’s team had an incredible season and almost made it to the Super Bowl. They lost their final playoff game by one point in overtime, holding back a significantly bigger team that had beaten them 19-0 in regular season play. The loss was undoubtedly a character building experience.
Even so, my effusive passion for the sport has done little to convince other parents at our school to put their boys in football. Everyone worries about catastrophic injuries, as do I.
The odds say not to panic, however. Consider the blaring media coverage about child abductions that maintains a panicky grip on parents even as the odds make the glaringly long odds against it clear. There are about 74 million children in the U.S. and 115 non-family abductions (this excludes runaways, lost and throwaway children). So while all of us worry that our children will be abducted if allowed to play outside or roam the neighborhood or walk to school, the actual likelihood is 0.0002%. Ironically, studies show that about 20% of children between the age of 10 and 17 receive an unwanted sexual solicitation online. Our fears about child abduction may actually be putting our children at higher risk if by keeping them inside we are giving them more time online.
Likewise, there are about 1.8 million football players in the U.S engaging in the sport annually. In 2010, there were seven spinal cord injuries with incomplete recovery and five fatalities (this includes college football). Defensive backs, kick off special team players and linebackers suffer the most injuries. By contrast, during the 2009/2010 ski season, there were 38 fatalities and 43 catastrophic injuries out of approximately 10 million skiers/snowboarders. That means statistically, you have an equal chance of suffering a devastating injury skiing or snowboarding as you do playing football (.0008% and .0007%). Either way these are still amazing Vegas odds. And yet, I can’t tell you how many of my friends, who take their kids skiing every year, insist that football is way too dangerous.
Of course, there is the concussion issue with the rate of concussion in football estimated at between 6% and 60% depending on the study. Linebackers suffer the most concussions on defense and running backs on offense. The concussion rate is pretty high, no question about it. Of course girls’ soccer is right up there with almost a 40% concussion rate. And boys’ soccer is not that far behind. My good friend who was captain of his high school soccer team had three concussions in his senior year. He won’t let his boys play football, but they are playing soccer. Girls sustain a higher rate of concussions than boys but certainly we should not suspend girls’ sports. Girls’ basketball competition is the fourth leading cause of concussions after boys’ soccer and I can attest to that because on my basketball team, there were multiple concussions each season. We also suffered broken bones, pulled ligaments, tendons, twisted ankles, dislocated joints, and bruised ribs. To put things in perspective, concussions only represent about 9% of all high school injuries, so if your child plays any sport, be prepared to visit the ER. There are over 7 million high school student athletes who suffer 2 million injuries, 500,000 doctor visits, and 30,000 hospitalizations annually. I don’t mean to scare anyone from youth sports, just to put football injuries in context. I also don’t mean to make light of the concussion issue- it is real, across multiple sports, and must be addressed through better preventive steps, training, technology and equipment, reporting, diagnosis, and treatment. Dealing with the issue of repeat concussions is critical for football, lacrosse, soccer and girls’ basketball especially. It also requires parental vigilance in allowing full recovery from a concussion before a child is allowed to play again.
Now I realize that we humans are incapable of internalizing statistics when it has to do with us and our children. And I don’t expect that most parents can objectively, analytically, decide whether football is an appropriate sport for their child or not. We make most of our parenting decisions based on gut instinct, intuition, hopefully guided by our children’s talents. Having said that, take it from a crazy football mom that if your child loves the game, and he (and sometimes she) must love the game, it presents an unmatched growth opportunity to build character and strength on and off the field.
A group of families from our team got together this weekend to play a friendly game of flag football. And all we could talk about is off-season training and conditioning and the countdown to August 2012 when we can start the madness all over again.
Does any of this have anything to do with venture capital? I’m glad you asked, because the answer is an unequivocal “absolutely.” Consider:
- In venture capital, we look for great teams. A winning CEO must be a coach and a mentor and know how to pick a great team, motivate it, maintain discipline and make the hard decisions about who to hire and who to cut. They know how to bring out the best in their players, demand a high level of performance and get it. This is what great coaches do every day.
- There are no ball hogs in football or venture capital. Unlike soccer and basketball where one child can ruin the sport for his teammates by hogging the ball, it is almost impossible to do that in football. Similarly, I am not a fan of the cult of the CEO or executives who are not great team players willing to do what is right for the company and its shareholders. There are painful decisions that some entrepreneurs make with incredible grace – bringing in a new CEO at the right time is one of the hardest. There are hundreds of other tough decisions where the founder or CEO must be selfless to increase the chances of success.
- Like crazy football moms who bring the drinks and snacks, do chain duty, act as spotters for the coach and scout the competition, venture capitalists are crazy fans on the sideline who hopefully contribute a lot more than money. But at the end of the day, we don’t run the companies. We are active board members who provide guidance and add value through our networks, but the team has to walk through every door we open, and execute on the plan. We do yell and scream loudly from the sidelines though. Perhaps I should bring a cowbell to my next board meeting.