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From Friday Night Lights to Monday Morning Custody Battles

by Leesa M. Poag, Attorney

We are officially in the midst of the best season of the year.  No, I’m not referring to the pumpkin-filled days of Fall.  I’m talking about football season.  But as we don our team colors and cheer on our favorite players, the on-field battles aren’t the only ones that family law attorneys are seeing this time of year.  As concerns about the long-term effects of head injuries from football continue to mount, we are beginning to see football leaving the locker room and heading to the courtroom.

Most parents would agree that extracurricular activities are beneficial for children of all ages.  They often provide the opportunity for exercise and allow for the development of skills like teamwork, perseverance, and hard work that will certainly serve the child well as he or she grows older.  Typically, the main dispute family law attorneys see regarding custody and extracurricular activities involve scheduling – can one parent sign the child up for an activity that will take place on the other parent’s custodial time, and vice versa.

But as the studies continue to emerge regarding concussions and traumatic brain injuries resulting from football, some parents are beginning to throw a flag on their children’s participation in the game.

The effects of the studies and research are evident at every level of the game.  For the last five seasons, college football has emphasized the “targeting penalty” that bans illegal hits on defenseless players.  Players face potential ejection from the game for hits above the shoulders and those leading with the crown of the helmet.  The NCAA has gone so far as to instruct officials to stop games to review potential targeting penalties and disqualify players making these illegal hits.  Much to the chagrin of fans, the NFL has placed a new emphasis on the  “roughing the passer” call in an attempt to protect quarterbacks from potentially dangerous hits.  Programs continue to spring up across the country to attempt to teach coaches and younger players proper “heads up” tackling techniques in an attempt to avoid helmet-to-helmet contact and prevent injuries.

There are also measures that parents can take to reduce the risk of serious injuries in football.  Making sure that a child has the proper, well-fitting equipment can help reduce injuries.  Manufacturers continue to employ the newest and most advanced technology to improve pads and helmets.  Age limits on tackle football can also prevent head injuries to younger children.  Allowing a child to participate in a flag football league may be a good compromise for parents who cannot agree on whether to let their child play the game.  Flag football allows the child an opportunity to learn and play the game, but without many of the risks associated with tackle football.  There are also programs for both players and coaches that teach proper, heads-up tackling techniques that can also reduce the risk of injury to players.

This question of whether or not to allow children to play football is finding its way into the courtroom in many states, especially in the deep south where our love of the gridiron certainly runs deep.  Parents who can’t agree on whether to allow their children to play football are turning to attorneys and judges, in some cases going so far as asking the court to modify custody orders to include language banning the child from playing football.

So is it worth it?  Do the potential risks of injury outweigh the rewards of playing the game?

In the end, this is a decision that each parent will have to make for their child.  But if mom and dad can’t agree, judges may have to put on their referee’s hat and make the call.