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Keith Strudler: Doctor’s Orders

My nine-year-old son is scared to death of shots. I probably shouldn’t say that on the air, since I’m sure it’s going to be used against me in family counseling someday, but it’s true. Now he get this naturally, since I freak out at the sight of needles as well. I’ve almost cancelled vacations because I had to get a vaccination first. So I understand why we have to convince our oldest son that it’s better to get a flu shot than the flu, even if I don’t always believe that myself.

Of course, that speech ideally comes from the doctor, who’s the front line between good health and anarchy. I consider our pediatrician one part medical professional, one part life coach. He has to play bad cop, the one who tells kids – and parents – that getting shots are really important, despite what some people might want to believe. As a parent, I want my doctor to always give me the straight truth about my kids’ health. For example, if there’s a risk with a medication, I want to know. Or if there’s some violent strain of something going around, I want to know that too. Let’s be honest. I can barely keep up with my laundry and my keys. So I can’t expect to know the latest research about the medical health of children, as much as I’d like to. That’s why we have a pediatrician. So he can tell us. It’s also why we need universal health care in the US, but I digress.

But how much do our pediatricians really need to tell us? I know they need to warn us about the flu, and measles, and stuff like that. But how about less pressing medical risks? Like bee stings. Or tripping on the sidewalk. These are all hazards, but I think most of us would find that a bit overbearing from a doctor – perhaps crossing the line to a grandmother.

For what it’s worth, to the list of things like hepatitis B and diphtheria, we can now add football. Yes, football. America’s pastime. According to an HBO Real Sports/Marist Poll done with the Center for Sports Communication released today, 85% of Americans and 87% of Americans with a son under 18 believe that doctors should be required to tell parents and children about the risk of long term brain injury that can come from playing football. So basically, the vast, vast majority of us believe that doctors need to treat playing football like it was an illness, or perhaps underage binge drinking or smoking. You can do it, but there’s serious risks. This question actually came out of a conversation with my kids’ doctor who admitted his office was having serious discussions about the ethics of signing medical forms for kids playing football. It turns out, America gets that. As odd as it sounds, if doctors know sending kids to play football might eventually cause serious brain trauma, as seems to be the case, perhaps signing a release might defy the Hippocratic Oath.

Now while Americans want to be warned, that doesn’t mean they’re ready to pull their kids off the field. 75% of Americans with a son under 18 would still allow them to play football. So knowledge may be power, but only if you use it. Perhaps that data should be tempered by the fact that 44% of those parents say the information linking football to brain trauma has made them less likely to let their kids play. That’s up from 36% three years ago. So even if they’re still playing, these decisions are far more thoughtful, if not labored. Of note, significant differences exist along racial, socio-economic, and geographic lines. And doesn’t that sound familiar.

So what does this all mean? At the very least, it means the sport of football could be on a long ride to nowhere in this country, particularly if the sport can’t change the narrative around both its inherent dangers and its inability to effectively address them. That means avoiding what the NFL did this year in promoting false data about how their Heads Up football program is preventing concussions, even though it doesn’t. It also means creating greater transparency and pouring way more money into research and prevention – from studies about CTE on former players to building better helmets to changing rules in ways that actually change the game. Even if that costs them money and fans in the short term, fans who don’t like the “wussification” of the sport, for lack of a better term. But that beats long term irrelevance, like boxing or horse racing or other sports that used to be really important. That’s what football – from youth to the NFL – should be scared about. Because unlike that shot my son got last week, this fear is real.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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