My eight-year-old son loves football. While he doesn’t play on an official team, he plays at recess and on playdates with his friends. They tackle each other at top speed and roll around in a tangle of limbs. They memorize professional players' names and statistics, and pretend to be them, emulating their swift moves on the field.
Not long ago, he and I were talking about how one of his favorite professional football players had been suspended from the NFL because of a domestic violence accusation. "I don't get why he's suspended,” my son said. “That doesn’t have anything to do with football."
Taking a deep breath, I explained to him that football players are people, just like us. They mess up; they make mistakes. He knows my history as a survivor of domestic abuse (in terms an eight-year-old child can understand), and I asked him how it would feel if he found out that a football player he admired had hurt one of his cousins or friends. I asked him to consider if that person should still have the privilege of being paid millions of dollars to play the game even though he has committed a crime.
I could almost see the wheels turning in my son’s head, and I felt my body tense, concerned about how to reckon with all this, and with thorny issues of violence on and off the field. After all, we cheer football players on for slamming into each other with rough, tough aggression on the field, but in life, we teach that it’s not OK to slam into people in anger.
But, when I spoke with two former high school classmates who played football in their teenage years, they said they believe that, when it comes to teaching kids about resilience, toughness and teamwork, football is in fact quite a good vehicle for those values, and that most kids are able differentiate between the game and real life.
"There’s a difference between being an angry person and getting fired up for a game," contends Jason Reed, a former high school football player and now a father to a young football player. "My son isn’t angry when he plays; he’s aggressive." But, he admits, "That’s where some athletes may have a problem—not having that coping mechanism to leave the gladiator mentality behind."
My other former classmate, Rodney Dale, a fire investigator and father of two, says on-the-field toughness is a must; tenderness will literally get a player hurt. But later on, "in the locker room after tough losses, mistakes and victories, that's when tears are often shed and comfort is given to each other,” Rodney says. “It’s also, at times, very emotional.”
Like it or not, kids often look up to athletes as heroes. And it’s not just athletes—they also venerate actors, reality-show stars and other people in positions of fame and power. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean these people behave like role models. And other than keeping kids completely sheltered, there's no way to prevent them from consuming messages that don’t jibe with the manner of a respectful, kind, thoughtful and caring person you want them to grow up to be.
Being a strong role model yourself is perhaps the best way to help kids, according to Austin-based family counselor, Marina Litinsky. "If we want kids to learn to handle their emotions in appropriate ways, we need to make sure we practise handling ours. Parents who expect their children to be respectful, kind and non-violent, yet often resort to yelling, shaming, name-calling or spanking, are destined for disappointment. Those who are there to listen, lend a helping hand, show respect and set appropriate examples are likely to get the same in return," she says. And since boys and girls often receive mixed messages from adults about what it means to "be a man" it's important to have conversations with kids about the concept of masculinity in our culture, and all of its complexities, says Litinsky.
And so my husband and I try to model how a good person acts, and point out what's not appropriate, in order to counter the machismo approach to life portrayed in both football and the commercials that air during games. We continually talk about what it means to be a good person, and while sometimes my son rolls his eyes at me, I know he's listening. I want my son to understand that being tough doesn't mean hurting others. We talk with him about kindness, respect, and the word STOP. We tell him to walk away from trouble and negativity as often as possible. And we hope that it’s enough.
This article was originally published online in January 2019.