High school football is a model for parent activists

I get hopeful every time I see people pushing back on schools. I think schools have way too much power in our society and I’m shocked by how many parents put up with it. And right now the group of parents pushing back the hardest are football parents. 

Parents are pointing to the data. Schools ignore all kinds of data if it’s bad for them. And for the most part, parents silently accept that. But parents are pushing back about football. The schools are saying the data isn’t that important, and the parents are taking their kids out of football anyway.

Parents see the schools as predators. Football coaches wander school hallways telling kids “you’re built for football” to get them to tryout for the team. The schools conflate leadership and football to create a pervasive peer pressure to join the team. But parents are pushing back, telling coaches to leave their kids alone because football causes concussions.

It feels like you’re leaving a cult. And these parents are talking about how difficult it is to push back on anything the school promotes, because pushing back on the school feels like pushing back on the community. The kids who ultimately quit are saying leaving football feels like leaving a cult. Which is exactly how I felt when I took my kids out of school.

The experiences parents are going through taking kids out of football seem so similar to what I went through taking my kids out of school. Administrators told me no one should homeschool, but they ignored the data I showed them. And teachers told me my kids were “built for school” as if every kid who tests well should be in school. And I felt over and over again that I was leaving a cult when people ostracized me for homeschooling.

And it turns out football is similar in that some kids need football so they have somewhere to go and somewhere to belong. When you see this argument in favor of football, you can really see how unequal the world is for kids: concussions are bad, but not worse than what these kids would face at home.

The football parent activists are forcing difficult discussions about the place of schools in communities and how we need to recalibrate the balance of power between schools and parents. This is exciting to me because they lay the groundwork for more wide reaching discussions in the future.

9 replies
  1. karelys
    karelys says:

    Belonging is so powerful.

    I work with LGBTQ youth and they have insane emotional intelligence. Maybe it’s that when you have to defend your identity you grow so fast. And you have to parse through a lot of the prepackaged “ways to be” kit handed to you in school.

    Some of them are starting clubs in their schools.
    They are such beautiful people.
    Often I have to tell the most leadership-y kids to think from the perspective of those who will join them.
    First and foremost, they want to belong.
    They are not concerned about writing letters to the representatives.
    Or bringing better sex ed to school.
    Or more mental health resources.

    Belonging is perhaps the biggest value of anything we can offer.
    And then,
    there’s everything else.

  2. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    “Football coaches wander school hallways telling kids “you’re build for football” to get them to tryout for the team.”

    Yes, this happens. It happened repeatedly to my son when he was in public school. People have been telling him he should play football since he was very young, and when he went to a school with a football team they pressured him repeatedly. He was the largest kid out of 450 in seventh grade, about 5’9 and 200# at age 12. But football was never a serious option for him, as he’s a very sensitive lad, and I was never concerned.

    He’s finally found a team sport he loves. He never breaks a sweat, never has to bump into anybody, and he can play it wearing a jacket and tie. Curling FTW!

    This is one of many ways in which his new school is working out so well for everybody. He said to me yesterday that he was sad he wouldn’t get to go to school today. He has more friends than he ever imagined, he loves his intellectually engaging classes and adores his brilliant, empowered teachers, and even people who don’t understand him are kind to him.

    I don’t believe nobody should homeschool; I don’t believe every kid should be in school. But I do believe my kids should be in school now, and they’re in the right one. I started homeschooling him in first grade because his first school was so awful for him. I don’t regret the time we spent together, but I wish we’d known – in Kindergarten, in Second Grade, or in Seventh Grade – how well the school he goes to now would suit him.

  3. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    That’s fascinating to me that you felt like you left a cult when you pulled your kids out. Perhaps rural one-school towns do feel cultish because that’s one of the only things going on to keep people socially active and engaged in small communities.

    Hasn’t high school football always been cultish? I’m glad to know that parents are pushing back. So much more research needs to be done to protect these kids and adults.

    My kids have been in public school since we moved to the twin cities area and it doesn’t feel cultish at all to me. If anything the unschooling community felt like a cult – one disagreement and one could be removed forever from a playgroup or online chat which always included some self-proclaimed expert naming themselves the wise “leader”… pretty creepy actually which is why I tended to mostly hang out with school parents even though we were unschoolers.

    Merry Everything and a Happy Always to you and yours :)

  4. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I see this in advocating for gifted resources for my children who have tested exceptionally high on the test for gifted identification approved by the Arizona State Board of Education. Over the past year, my children’s school district -Kyrene School District – has gutted gifted resources and marginalized it to a watered down social/emotional elective. Gifted education has become all marketing and no substance.

    The problem is that many public school administrators lack customer service and are egotists. Concerns or even just questions brought by parents are seen as an attack to their self-aggrandized view. Parents and their kids then get labeled and are treated like defectors of “the cult” as you say. Sadly, it’s not about what is best for the kids, but about advancing their careers and public perception.

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      Gifted resources in public school have been miserable since I was a kid. I went to one school that had a trailer parked out back and for a couple hours a week we could go out there, drink tea, and play games. That ratty trailer was an emotional life preserver for me, because our teacher Violet Farmer (!) spoke to us like we were reasonable people.

      My state has zero funding for gifted education, and no mandate to provide any. Some of the wealthier suburbs have programs. I think the prevailing ideology of egalitarianism decrees that gifted kids should be able to take care of themselves, and resources should go to the less fortunate.

      Why anybody should assume that it’s easier for someone three sigmas to the right (i.e. IQ 145+) to assimilate in a class pitched to the median than it would be for someone at the median to assimilate in a class pitched for someone three sigmas to the left (i.e. IQ 55-) is beyond me.

      Are you sure you have exhausted local resources for your kids, Anonymous? It looks like you are near some good ones. Look into the Herberger Academy in Glendale (grades 7-12), or the Math Circle at ASU Tempe (9-12), or the ASU Barrett Summer Scholars in Tempe (8-10).

  5. Paul
    Paul says:

    This is super disappointing from you, Penelope.
    Where are your links to support that football has more concussions then other sports?
    Every sport is “cultish”, as you should know from your beach volleyball days.
    Football is a risk for concussions, yes, but not till NFL level. Figure skating actually has way more concussions as does gymnastics and hockey.
    You push your agenda and you’re losing credibility in the process to justify how you messed up raising your own kids

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      There are no links about number of concussions etc because it wasn’t an issue. The post is about how football parents are mobilizing. It’s irrelevant if they should be mobilizing or not. The point of the post is that football parents are pushing back on the school and it’s interesting to see how it plays out, because all pushing back against the school ends up looking similar.


  6. Fatcat
    Fatcat says:

    I’m glad to hear that people are listening to the research about concussions! It doesn’t seem like it’s happening in my area – I see a lot of my friend’s kids on football teams, but I feel a little hope after reading this.

    When we left the public school system, 2 of the teachers, the principal and the director of pupil personnel called and tried to talk us out of it. We had some good test takers too.

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