Arizona Cardinals Coach Bruce Arians recently said that “we have to make sure that moms get the message” that they should let their kids play football. One mom has a different message, and it stems from her experience losing a son to what she described as the after-effects of his decade in the sport.
The NFL “sold my kid a dream, and gave him a nightmare,” Kimberly Archie said, with a rueful chuckle.
Actually, Archie was already an advocate for greater safety measures in youth sports when her son, Paul Bright Jr., died in 2014 at the age of 24. The cause of death was reckless driving on a motorcycle — one that Archie said had no license, insurance or registration, or that she even knew he owned — but the circumstances fit with what had become a troubling pattern of erratic behavior by the previously reliable and hard-working Bright.
Archie, whose concern for her cheerleader daughter’s safety had led her to create the National Cheer Safety Foundation, had also worked as a legal consultant on a case involving football-related head injuries. She had even done radio and TV interviews in which she mentioned the amount of hits her son had taken on the football field, and thus she had suspicions about what could have gone so wrong with him. Archie had Bright’s brain examined posthumously, and sure enough, it revealed an early stage of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease at the heart of the NFL’s ongoing problems with concussions.
Whereas Bright had played football from 7 to 17, Archie now feels that “it’s impossible to make [football] reasonably safe for kids under 14 to play.” It isn’t a shock that she isn’t buying what Arians spent the weekend selling.
On Friday, the 63-year-old Arians had addressed high school football coaches at a clinic, stressing the importance of “fundamentals” such as tackling with the shoulders and not the head. He also made comments that had him subsequently taking to social media to offer clarification.
“This is our sport, and it’s being attacked,” Arians told the coaches. “We have to stop it at the grass roots. It’s the best game that’s ever been [expletive] invented. And we have to make sure that moms get the message, because that’s who’s afraid of our game right now.
“It’s not dads, it’s moms,” Arians continued. “And our job is to make sure the game is safe, at all levels.”
“His comments aren’t based on science, and to say that moms are attacking football is just ridiculous,” Archie said. She added, “There’s no magic tackling that’s going to make football reasonably safe for young kids.”
A major problem for children playing tackle football is that their heads quickly grow to almost full size long before their bodies do, the necks in particular. That creates a “bobblehead” effect, one exacerbated by helmets, which can weight up to five pounds, an enormous amount for a young person who himself may only weight 50-60 pounds.
“My son knew how to hit without using his head,” Archie said. “Your brain still slams against your skull even if you’re hitting shoulder to shoulder.”
Out of apparent concern for how his remarks might be interpreted (and perhaps at the suggestion of a Cardinals public-relations executive), Arians posted this message Sunday to his Twitter account:
“Just to be clear about kids playing football, my point is that moms are often the ones making those decisions in a family. We have to make sure that they’re getting the message about everything being done to make the game as safe as possible. They’re the ones we have to influence. It’s a great game and it’s even greater when it’s played, coached and taught the right way. Everybody involved with the sport has a responsibility to make that happen.”
Archie did agree with at least one part of that note. “Moms are gatekeepers to children … and if we don’t want the kids to play, and if the dad thinks it’s perfectly safe, then guess what? Little Johnny isn’t playing,” she said.
However, as for Arians’s claim about the NFL and others doing “everything” to make the game safe, Archie said, “They’re not. That’s a fallacy — it’s actually just complete fraud.”
The 46-year-old legal expert, based in Los Angeles, has been pushing for more federal and/or Congressional oversight of the sport, and she brought up the oft-made comparison between where the NFL is now on the concussions issue and where Big Tobacco was several years ago. Saying that football can’t “self-regulate,” Archie likened those efforts to cigarette companies pitching “light” cigarettes and stronger filters.
Much like the way cigarette companies were criticized for ad campaigns that could be construed as glamorizing smoking to youngsters, Archie said of the NFL, “I think they’re selling kids a lie.” She claimed that her son, despite being just 5 feet 2 and 107 pounds at age 14, “believed that if he played football … he could have a chance” at a college scholarship or even a professional career.
In Archie’s view, football executives “see their pipeline of future players as dwindling away,” and thus are desperately trying to counteract negative publicity. However, she said, “I see it the opposite — they’re beating the crap out of these kids’ heads, the majority of them are never going to play in the NFL, and so you’re killing your customers.”
In light of her response to Arians’s comments from the weekend, one might imagine an even stronger reaction to remarks the coach made in March that “people who say ‘I won’t let my son play [football]’ are fools.” However, the sports-safety activist said she understood Arians’s contention at that time that football “teaches more values than any other game that you play.”
Archie described football and cheerleading, the two sports her children loved the most (and she had something to do with the latter eventually being officially recognized in many states as a sport, and thus regulated as such), as being uniquely American, tied in with such cultural institutions as the homecoming king and queen. She also called them “true team sports,” and, noting that both endeavors require many more participants than, for example, basketball, Archie said, “You have a lot of people that have to work together, and it really becomes exponentially dynamic, to get a group of people to work together for a common goal.”
But Archie was quick to draw a sharp line at the practice of allowing tackling before high school. “As long as you are exposing kids to hits, you are exposing them to brain damage,” she said. “And that’s just irresponsible and ridiculous. There is no gain, there is no lesson, there is nothing that is worth brain damage.”
So as much as Arians feels the need to enlist “moms” to his view of football’s virtues and its current safety level, there is at least one mom providing a different viewpoint, one cemented in grief over a death that confirmed her growing fears.
“Even football, as great as it is, will not be able to supersede the love of a mother protecting her child,” Archie said. “And as more moms are aware of this exposure to brain damage, they are not going to play Russian Roulette with their kid’s brain. It’s just not going to happen.
“I don’t know any mom who would know what I know and sign their kid up.”