Youth Sports Are Dangerous, Let Them Play Anyway


A gymnast performing. When my husband’s phone rang, we’d just returned home from a weekend trip.

“Are you watching the Bills game?” his brother asked.

“Just about to turn it on,” my husband said.

“Don’t,” he said. “Someone might’ve died on the field.”

As my husband relayed the message, I ran to the television and grabbed the remote from my six-year-old son’s hands.

Football-obsessed, my son had been talking about watching that game the entire ride home. He’d spent the weekend wearing his flag football jerseys from his first two seasons in the Fairfield Youth Football program and talking about all the players in the NFL. To him, they are real-life superheroes. And my son wants to be just like them.

The thought of my six-year-old witnessing one of these superheroes fighting for his life shook me to my core. And in the days after Damar Hamlin’s injury, I couldn’t stop following the story. When I learned his mother rode in the ambulance with him, I crumbled. Because while Damar Hamlin might have been a superhero to my son, he was also a son himself. His mother’s little boy.

And I couldn’t help but imagine Hamlin like my little boy now, suited up in his oversized flag football jersey, his eyes sparkling before every game.

It made me pray. It made me pause. And it made me consider our decision to let our older children participate in two of the most dangerous sports – football and gymnastics.

According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury, from 1982 to 2008:

  • The rate of death among high school football players was 0.3 per 100,000 players
  • The rate of severe or non-fatal injury among high school football players was 1.49 per 100,000 players
  • There were no recorded deaths of high school female gymnasts. However, the severe or non-fatal injury rate was almost the same as in football at 1.41 per 100,000 gymnasts.

In comparison, the rate of severe or non-fatal injury for soccer during this period was 0.11 per 100,000 for boys and 0.04 per 100,000 for girls. The data does not lie. Football and gymnastics are dangerous compared to other sports.

When I was pregnant with my son, I vowed he would never play football. I could not imagine letting him do something that could potentially harm the beautiful body I was growing inside me. Instead, I pictured a future filled with soccer fields, tennis matches, swim teams, and baseball diamonds. The part I didn’t picture? My son would try all those sports and love football best.

It is hard to deny that football has been good for my son. In the short time since he started playing, he’s become more outgoing and confident, more likely to raise his hand in class or run over to a group of friends. Hours calculating potential football scores have improved his math skills. He’s also learned to strategize as he predicts whether a team will run the ball or pass it. On the field, his skills have improved greatly through hard work and extra practice time with his dad. At home, he talks about one day being just like his favorite player, Patrick Mahomes. Already football has begun to shape his body and soul.

Yet my worry remains with every play, every slip, every glimpse into a future that will most likely involve pads and helmets and tackles. And I wonder. Should we steer him away from football now when he’s young? Should we search for a new sport he can love?

It’s a question with no easy answer. Football is dangerous, and the thought of an injury often haunts me when I sleep. But then the catastrophic sports injuries my husband and I know of came not from football or gymnastics but from baseball and lacrosse. Accidents happen even in safer sports.

Not to mention unrelated dangers such as car accidents (2 deaths per 100,000 boys in 2019, 1.7/100k girls) and illnesses like the flu (.3 deaths per 100,000 children during the 2019-2020 season). These numbers remind me that the world is not risk-free. Driving to the game can be more dangerous than playing it. And learning how to take risks in a controlled environment, like an organized sports program with coaches and safety protocols, can build a strength of character that will stay with our kids forever.

I witnessed this last weekend when my daughter competed in her first gymnastics meet of the season. She was on the balance beam performing a new routine, which was much more challenging than her previous one. I was nervous as she mounted the beam and worked her way through the difficult elements. When she landed her cartwheel, I felt my shoulders relax. All that was left was the dismount. She rarely got that wrong.

And so when she started running into her round-off, I was smiling, already thinking about how she’d be happy with her score. Then mid-round-off, her foot slipped. Her head lunged toward the beam. I screamed. But she didn’t panic. Instead, she got her hands out just in time, her forearms smashing the beam before her body fell to the ground. 

Then she got up, her eyes still laser-focused. She climbed back on the beam. She performed a perfect dismount.

And that was when I understood why I let my kids play the sports they love. Because these sports teach them not to fear the world but to trust themselves, they teach them how to stay calm in a crisis, not hide from challenges, and approach them as strategically and safely as possible.

I hope my kids bottle these skills up and keep them close throughout their lives. That they call on them when they have the idea to start a new company or take a job on the other side of the world, I hope they learn not to be afraid of risks but to approach them calmly. To assess the danger in a situation and then attack it in the safest manner they can. Never forget they can achieve dreams that seem impossible.

And while they dream and risk and live their lives, I’ll be there on the sidelines. Praying they avoid injury. But knowing their lives are richer because we let them play.

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Jackie Nastri Bardenwerper
Jackie Nastri Bardenwerper lives in Fairfield, CT with her husband and three children, ages 10, 7, and 4. She is the author of several novels that encourage tween and teen girls to listen to their inner voice, from saving the family fishing business in ON THE LINE, to following a passion for crafting in SALTED CARAMEL DREAMS, and exposing a friend’s hurtful social media platform in POPULATTI. She is currently working on a new children's book series and a new novel on motherhood. She also shares her own motherhood experiences on her Instagram @jnbwrite. When not writing, you can find Jackie and her family enjoying Fairfield’s beautiful coastline where they love fishing, swimming and sailing.


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