Future of football in moms' hands
It is impossible to comprehend what Devon Walker's parents must have felt when they saw their son laying motionless on the football field.
Imagine their helplessness and fear. Making matters worse, they weren't at the game in Oklahoma, but watching from home in Louisiana when the Tulane senior safety's helmet crashed into his teammate's as they both angled to tackle Tulsa's Willie Carter.
Walker suffered a broken neck, and while doctors have said that he was "alert and responsive" after a three-hour surgery to stabilize his spine, his prognosis remains uncertain.
But Walker's parents weren't the only ones who watched Devon's situation unfold with anxiety and hopelessness. Thousands of miles away, Holly Robinson Peete's heart was full of empathy for a player and family she didn't know.
"It was so intense," said Peete, a Hollywood actress who is married to former NFL quarterback Rodney Peete. "It was again another reminder that we have to pay attention to these dangers."
But for Peete and other mothers who either saw Walker's injury or heard about it, this incident was more than just a reminder about how dangerous football can be. It brought to surface an internal struggle that mothers everywhere are coping with.
Should I let my son play football?
When Kurt Warner said he would rather his sons didn't play football, he drew a firestorm of criticism from former players, including ESPN NFL analyst Merril Hoge, who called Warner's comments "irresponsible." Warner later backtracked on his comments, but for football to continue to thrive, whether former players allow their kids to play doesn't necessarily matter.
The key to football's survival is mothers.
Thousands of eyes are watching closely every time a player is injured. Many of those eyes belong to women, to mothers like Peete who have a huge say in whether their sons are among the next crop of football talent.
"Eighty-five to 90 percent of the moms in my circle that have sons are digging their heels in and saying, 'I'm not going to let them do it,' " Peete said.
Walker's injury certainly could be classified a fluke. At first glance, it looked like a meaningless collision, the kind that probably occurs several times in any game.
Only it happened during a weekend when it seemed like college football was particularly dangerous.
Also on Saturday, Arkansas cornerback Tevin Mitchel was taken off the field on a stretcher after a helmet-to-helmet collision that was similar to the one that involved Walker. Thankfully, Mitchel, who was treated and released from the hospital, tweeted he would be fine.
Undoubtedly, a lot of football fans sent prayers and well-wishes to both Walker and Mitchel, while at the same time characterizing both of their injuries as just the unfortunate downside of a physical game.
But it's not that simple.
These are unpaid college players. Certainly the NCAA is following the NFL's lead by becoming more vigilant about making the game safer. This season, kickoffs were moved from the 30- to 35-yard line. There is more emphasis on eliminating dangerous hits. In fact, the Pac-12 suspended Washington State safety Deone Bucannon for the first half of Friday's UNLV game for his late, vicious hit on Eastern Washington receiver Greg Herd during last weekend's game.
Still, it's an ironic conundrum that football is in. Among women, football is more popular than ever. The NFL estimates that 44 percent of its fans are female.
But if it's true that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world, it also determines if its sons ever touch a football.
Peete's son Robinson is 10 years old. He played football locally in Los Angeles last year. She signed him up to play football again this year, but when it was time for him to play, she just couldn't give her consent. She convinced her son, who also is a terrific baseball player, to wait another year to play football.
"It's a major point of contention between Rodney and I," she said. "But the information out there is scary. As a mom and a football fan, I'm at a crossroads."
That's the tough part: Peete absolutely loves football. She tweets about it nonstop on college football Saturdays and NFL Sundays. She married into a football family. In addition to her husband playing in the NFL for 14 years, her brother-in-law, Skip, is the running backs coach for the Dallas Cowboys.
"I don't want to be one of these moms that if you have a talented kid, you deprive of the opportunities that football brings them," she said.
But it's understandable why mothers feel so protective. According to a recent study released by the Centers for Disease Control, NFL players are three times as likely as the general population to die from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. Of course, not every kid who plays football will wind up playing professionally, but can you blame mothers for wondering whether football is shortening their sons' futures?
Giving mothers peace of mind will be the sport's biggest challenge in this new age of awareness. It's not that fathers don't carry weight in the household, or feel the same reservations that many mothers and wives feel, but it's clear this issue resonates differently with women.
Erin and Lee Hanson created the company Protecting Our Children Ventures after developing the Guardian Cap, a soft-shell cover that fits atop football helmets. According to the company's research, the cap reduces impact by up to 33 percent.
Lee and Erin, a mother of five, decided to mass produce the product on their own because she was alarmed by the injuries her son's friends were suffering playing football. So far, the company has distributed 7,000 protective caps, primarily to youth and high school football teams.
But as Erin has made presentations to coaches around the country, she's taken note of how each gender is soaking up her message.
"It's a real badge of honor for guys to say I've had three or four concussions," Erin said. "The mothers see it in a whole different light. We see the emotional challenges these players are having and say, 'I don't want that for my kid. I want him to be a good dad, a good husband and have a good career and I don't want his brain to be injured in the process.' "
When Erin's 14-year-old son, Jake, told her that he was thinking about playing football next year, she wasn't ready to concede.
"I said, 'Jake, we'll have to have that discussion then,' " she said.
Despite the work her company is doing to make the game safer, she's still afraid.
And while women are currently supporting the game in record numbers, there also seems to be a number of women who are willing to jeopardize its future if it means never having to see someone's son being carted off a football field.