It's Super Bowl Sunday, and by kickoff I'll have a pot of chili on the stove and a couple of beer mugs chilling in the freezer.
I'll sit down with the rest of the nation to watch over-hyped commercials and Beyoncé's redemption from "lip-syncgate." Oh, yeah, and the football game.
Sixty minutes of full-throttle collisions among men makes for a good show, especially when you throw in what may be Ray Lewis' final acts of brutality.
I want to pour a cold one and enjoy the spectacle. This year, though, a question dogs me like an unrelenting linebacker wearing No. 52: Will I let my own son play football?
Turns out those hits we love to wince at from the comfort of our couches may cause brain damage that builds up over time with every concussion. Even more-mild strikes to the head, neck and upper torso take a toll.
And when it comes to kids, scientists already know that three or more concussions before age 15 bring a higher risk of permanent memory loss and trouble concentrating.
That's enough to scare any parent.
President Barack Obama told the New Republic last month, "I'm a big football fan, but I have to tell you, if I had a son, I'd have to think long and hard before I let him play football."
The president gets to speculate. Those of us with sons who show an interest in the game will have to make the hard decisions.
So I called a couple of doctors who routinely deal with concussions in their practices, in hopes of gaining a little clarity. It turns out this parental dilemma is more complicated than I thought.
Not because football is so uniquely violent, but because other sports are also prone to sending kids to the sidelines with concussions.
Dr. Elizabeth Davis specializes in pediatric sports medicine at Orlando Health. She and her partners are the team doctors for the football programs at Evans High, Apopka High and Windermere Preparatory.
She's seen some scary stuff: 14- and 16-year-olds coming in for their second and third concussions, for example.
"I have seen two patients with multiple concussions, and I made the recommendation to the parents to take them out of contact sports," Davis said. "Both sets of parents agreed. It was almost like they wanted the OK to tell their kid that."
But those patients weren't football players. They were hurt on soccer and lacrosse fields.
Both sports also rank high in numbers of injuries among students.
Does this mean parents should question whether any contact sport is safe enough for their child?
Every sport carries some level of risk. But I tend to think that's outweighed by the good that comes with sport.
Physical fitness, leadership skills, discipline, team building and — let's not forget — fun are worth the risk ... if the right safety precautions are in place.
The days of shaking off concussions are over in Florida.
A law that went into effect last year prevents student athletes with concussions from getting back into the game. They can't go back to playing sports at all without a doctor's OK.
And in some counties, including Orange and Seminole, the school district requires memory, concentration and reaction-time testing for athletes at the beginning of the season. If an athlete gets hurt, then he or she must stay out of sports until being able to perform at least at their baseline level on the test.
These types of precautions might put parents such as me at ease when our kids reach high school.
Younger kids are a different story.
Their brains are less developed and more susceptible to the effects of head trauma. That surprised me, considering kids typically bounce back faster than adults from injuries.
"It's the exact opposite of what you would say intuitively," said Dr. Walter Taylor, a primary-care doctor who specializes in sports medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. "Their brains heal slower than adult brains."
Virginia Tech researchers put sensors in the helmets of seven 7- and 8-year-old boys in 2011 and measured the force of 753 hits. Most hits were low-impact, but a handful measured at forces equal to the hard hits we see in college games.
Shortly after those results were released last year, Pop Warner altered its practice rules, saying only a third of practice time could be devoted to full-contact drills. The youth league also teaches kids to lead with their shoulders and not tackle with their heads.
All good safety improvements.
But when it comes to my own son, flag football will have to do until he's older.
I asked Davis point-blank what she would do if she had kids.
"Does an 8-year-old need to play tackle football? In my opinion, no," she said. "I probably would not like my child to play tackle football until eighth or ninth grade."
It makes sense for my son to wait until he's 14 or 15 — and removing a decade of concussion risk before moving into tackle.
Then I'll pray he becomes a kicker.
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