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posted: 2/4/2014 5:00 AM

Hard knocks of pro football

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President Obama's imaginary son is back in town and this time he can't play football.

Dad says so. And Mom probably would, too.

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On this point, we three could smoke a peace pipe.

The president's remarks come from the continuing gift of his interview with New Yorker Editor David Remnick. Obama said that if he had a son, he wouldn't let him play pro football. This is probably a slight overstatement since fathers don't usually direct the professions of grown sons, especially when their earnings are greater than the combined incomes of most extended families.

But grown sons can't turn pro if parents don't let them play when they're boys, so perhaps Obama was skipping the obvious.

This marks the second time Obama has weighed in on the football-injury question. Last year in an interview with The New Republic, he said he'd have to think "long and hard" before letting his son play. So this year's remarks represent a tougher line, and come at a time when nearly four in 10 parents say they'd rather their boys play a sport other than the head-butting game, according to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.

The skirmish has gained further traction with a lawsuit filed by 4,000 former players against the NFL, claiming that the league was aware of head-trauma dangers long before it moved to protect players adequately or to help them post-injury. Although a settlement has been reached, a judge in the case is not satisfied that the numbers add up and a final judgment is pending.

Anyone who has had a concussion knows it's serious business. Successive concussions can have long-lasting effects leading to various mental disorders. Worse accidents are not unknown. My own cousin has been a quadriplegic since a head injury in high school that resulted from a defective helmet. You'll never hear him complain and his mind is perfectly sublime -- his wit is unscathed -- but that was a high price to pay for the fleeting pleasure of a sport.

I say these things as a mother rather than, worst confession ever, a cheerleader. In my day, in my little Florida town, cheerleading was all that was available to athletic girls. We'll just leave it at that. As a mother, I would have bought my son a yearlong pass to Jurassic Park. No, let me rethink that. I would have given him anything under the moon to discourage him -- nay, to prevent his playing.

Fortunately, I didn't have to. It never came up. I won't betray my promise never to write about him again -- a commitment he extracted at age 9. Suffice to say his interests were elsewhere.

But most parents of boys (and, yes, the occasional girl) have to consider the question of whether to let them play football. It's amusing to hear parents of infants and toddlers say "never," when experienced parents know that these things change with time and testosterone. There comes a time when the tiniest, most adorable little boy looms over your head, leaves his too-large shoes for you to trip over, his laundry lists of assaults on one's own senses too odoriferous for these musings.

For many, the day comes when Mom looks at her former tyke and thinks to herself: Why don't you go outside and play football and maybe think about joining a team? Away games are so much fun!

Ultimately, parents know best, though they'll make better decisions if they study the helmet issue and insist on the best for their son's team. Considerable resources have been dedicated to minimizing injury through improved helmet design.

As for the pros, meanwhile, Obama aptly summarized the only reasonable adult position: "These guys (pro players), they know what they're doing. They know what they're buying into. It is no longer a secret. It's sort of the feeling I have about smokers, you know?"

We know.

We also know what else we know: Football ain't going anywhere. It is a relentlessly beloved American pastime for masses of people who cram stadiums season after season. Like most things American, it has become extreme. Bigger, faster, meaner and richer. The beauty of a perfect pass, the at-times balletic moves down the field, the bearing witness to the touchdown and later the jubilation of victory juxtaposed with the despair of defeat. ... If I keep writing like this, I'm going to go get my pompoms and dust off my bugle. If you see me attempt an eagle spread, by all means, please have me arrested.

Kathleen Parker's email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

2014, Washington Post Writers Group

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