No, I did not send my 4-year old to school in Patriots gear for "Super Bowl Spirit Day" on Friday.
Earlier in the week, I'd gotten an email from the preschool that my kids — Leila, almost 5, and Mateo, almost 3 — have attended for the last couple of years. Wedged between a reminder to “bring your patience” to pick-up (bothersome snow in the parking lot) and a request for donations for cancer research was a New England Patriots logo with the following message:
“In honor of the Patriots' Super Bowl appearance, send your child to school in his or her Patriots gear! If your child does not own Patriots gear, send him or her to school wearing red, white, and blue. Go Patriots!”
The message and the casual endorsement of the NFL embedded within an otherwise routine school update left me deeply uncomfortable.
I sent the school administrators a note:
As you know, [my husband] Marton is a coach who works with young children and I am a public health professional/scientist. We, as a family, have made an active decision not to support, promote, or even expose our children to football. The science is unwavering in its evidence that football (in the way it is currently played in our society) causes traumatic brain injuries. Those chronic traumatic injuries are associated with trauma to the very parts of the brain that control a person's ability to regulate their behavior and have been strongly linked with depression, aggression, and impaired judgment of all sorts. They have even been linked with suicide.
I recognize that others don't think about football in this light--but I would encourage you, as an institution focused on the development of young minds, to reconsider your endorsement of the NFL, and all that it stands for today.
What are your thoughts on this?”
The director of the school soon followed up with a respectful note stating that she had not previously considered the concerns that I raised, and that she would discuss the issue with the teachers, but that they would not be changing their plans.
I decided to follow up with a bit more information: several links to articles about the issue, including a piece in that very day’s New York Times.
“I acknowledge your decision not to reconsider promoting the sport on Friday — and I respect that individuals make their own choices about whether to watch, play, or support football. However, when an institution chooses to support or endorse another institution, it sends a message (intended or not) about the values of the institution doing the supporting.
Obviously, my concerns are not so much about whether or not the kids dress up in Patriots gear on Friday. I am more worried about whether we encourage fandom for the sport/league from a young age, whether kids should be playing tackle football, and how we as a society should be demanding that the NFL value the lives and well-being of young men (and families) in our society. I appreciate you hearing me out on the big picture.
As I thought more about it, I decided to follow up with Leila’s teachers. Here’s some of what I wrote to them:
Leila will not be dressed in Patriots gear tomorrow. We will have a conversation with her tonight about our family's values and how they square with football. We will also talk with her about the importance of being respectful of different points of view on this topic."
As promised, I sat down with Leila on Thursday night and explained to her that there was a big football game coming up, and that she would hear about it at school the next day. I told her that many of her friends and teachers would probably be dressed up in football clothes. I explained to her that in our family we do not see football as a safe game — that, in fact, it can be very dangerous.
I told her that we don’t believe in watching it or playing it in the dangerous way, because we think it is important to take care of other people’s bodies and our own bodies. I explained to her that we believe that the people who organize the big football games should be doing a lot more to show that they care about the health and safety of the players.
I also explained to her that lots of people really like football, that they don’t think about it as dangerous, and that it is OK for us to see things differently.
Finally, I reminded her that we don’t have any football clothes and we would not be going out to buy any. She looked up at me and said, “OK, Mommy, I don’t want to play that game. But maybe when I am bigger I will want to watch it.”
Her response was a good reminder that she will be making these and all sorts of other decisions for herself very soon.
When it was time for Leila to get dressed Friday morning, she informed me that she would be choosing her own clothes. She carefully selected a sparkly T-shirt with a heart-shaped image of the earth, a purple tutu, unicorn leggings, an enormous flower hair clip and a tiara. If she was worried about fitting in, it didn’t show.
As we entered her school, we stepped into a sea of Patriots gear. I felt my gut churn a bit. I felt like an outsider.
Leila loves her school. We have found it to be an inclusive environment that lives up to its mission of creating a safe and nurturing environment for our children to learn and grow. I left my daughter, feeling confident that she felt right at home and that the teachers would make sure that she did not feel excluded.
But I also left feeling incredibly confused. Of all the things that educators could be encouraging our children to care about and be interested in, is a sport that has been scientifically proven to cause routine traumatic brain injuries really one of those things? And does it really merit an entire “spirit day” in its honor at a school for toddlers and preschoolers?
I get that for many, the Super Bowl is just pure fun. I get that we could all use common ground to rally around in times like these.
I am just not willing to cheer a multibillion-dollar business that values profit over safety. And I am especially resistant to the idea of an educational institution enlisting my small kids in such fandom.
Kate Mitchell, MPH, is a public health consultant, a doctoral student at Boston University School of Public Health, and a mother.