How Do I Explain the Violence of Football to My 8 Year-Old Son?

When my son was born, I had big plans for teaching him to disregard gender norms. He would have just as many dolls as trucks. He would wear pinks and purples. He would take origami classes and talk about feelings and, if I played my cards right, get dolled up to attend The Nutckracker with me each Christmas. But cut to eight years later and he is utterly, tragically…a dude, his brain a never-ending hamster wheel of sports cards and soccer moves and where in the house he should go to fart in order to achieve maximum gross-out.

I’d like to think my feminist husband and I have raised him to reject the worst parts of toxic masculinity (he won’t wear pink…but he knows it’s fine if other boys do…), but I also know it’s hard to shield him entirely, in a world that overvalues toughness, stoicism and violence masquerading as entertainment.

This was brought into stark relief the other night while watching the now-notorious Bengals-Bills game that ended in the first quarter with 24 year-old Damar Hamlin leaving the field in an ambulance after suffering cardiac arrest. My son is a devout Bengals fan (for unknown reasons; we live 600 miles from Cincinnati), and we had let him stay up late to watch the game. He claims he wants to be a running back when he grows up—a career path we’ve made clear is not an option, as much for safety reasons as for the fact that he is a 60-pound kid from Brooklyn whose 5’1” Jewish mother has already signed him up for coding classes. But watching football? Obsessively printing out the standings sheets and studying Joe Burrow’s rookie card stats and spending his Sundays helping his dad with fantasy picks? That seemed innocent enough.

My husband and I both come from football families—not families where you throw beer cans at the TV or yell at teenagers Friday Night Lights style, mind you. But families where you follow a team, become invested in the outcomes and make caloric food to coincide with game days. Growing up, I purported not to care about sports. (Listen, I was really busy dating the coolest guy at Shakespeare camp!) But after 10 years of marriage and two years with a meat-headed elementary-schooler, it’s been hard not to find myself saying things like “Think they’ll go for the two-point conversion?” or “C’mon, dipshit, that was in bounds!”

But I’ve never been a complete convert, and even before Monday night, I thought somebody who was dropped into America with no knowledge of the NFL would be horrified by a group of barely adult men hurdling towards each other with the intent to bash each other to the ground. And they would be right. As reported by The New York Times, the league saw 187 concussions in the 2021 season (which, admittedly, was down from 275 in 2015, before a rule went into effect that prohibited players from deliberately crashing into each other with their helmets). And the implications of these head injuries are troubling, for both professional and amateur players. Per an article in Good Housekeeping on the long-term affects of youth football, “A University of Rochester study on college football players found it took just 10 to 15 hard hits to produce physical alterations in players' brains. And burgeoning evidence suggests that the longer a person plays, the more his brain may be affected.”

Hamlin, of course, did not suffer a concussion. And it’s possible what he had was a heart “event” that could have happened on a baseball field or jogging path. But whatever this “event” was, it was/is harrowing and tragic. And watching him crumple to the ground with my second grader at my side was just about as upsetting as you might imagine. When it became clear CPR was happening and the game wasn’t resuming any time soon, we whisked our son off to bed, but he awoke in the morning with many questions: Will Hamlin be OK? When will they finish the game? Have you ever seen an injury that bad? Why did it happen?

I can’t answer these questions for him, but I also can’t answer the bigger question about why we teach our sons that a “sport” that endangers young men’s lives is not only fine, but glamorous. And I’m torn in terms of nurturing his love of football (I bought him the Bengals jersey--am I complicit?) or leaning into my revulsion and steering him away. I am also married to a person who has loved football for 40 years, so, I mean, good luck with all that, sanctimonious self.

For now, I’m simply trying to be as honest with him as I can, to tell him that you can simultaneously enjoy the art and the excitement of the game and take issue with the violence. But mostly, I want him to learn that more important than finishing the season or making it to the playoffs is keeping everybody safe, and praying this young man gets better. And maybe it wouldn’t kill us to all watch a little more basketball.

jillian quint

Editor-in-Chief, Avid Reader, Wallpaper Enthusiast

Jillian Quint is the Editor-in-Chief of PureWow, where she oversees the editorial staff and all the fabulous content you read every day. Jillian began her career as a book editor...