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Confessions of a Footy-Mad Dad: Why I Won’t Let My Son Play Junior Rugby League

Phil SullivanBy Phil Sullivan.
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When my son, Max, was born, I began planning the kind of footy dad I’d become – the sideline guru, the tactician, the 5am whistle-blower. As I’d learnt from my dad, the love of Rugby League is transmitted by blood, and a morning kick in the backyard is as normal as breakfast. Max’s place in the local footy team was a given.

In a flash I was the proud father of a seven-year-old boy. The same age I’d been when my dad had first driven me to a muddy oval in a pair of Kmart boots. It was time…

But I didn’t.

When I’d first dressed him in the Rabbitohs’ red and green, aged six months, I’d dreamed of keeping him up to watch Origin and the finals. He was old enough now…

But I hadn’t.

Instead, I sneak replays on Kayo after he’s gone to bed. I’ve never taken him to a game. He plays a weekend sport, but not that kind of footy.

Why?

Since Max came into the world, I’ve loved him more than anything. So the idea of him running onto a footy field scares the hell out of me. The bone-crunching tackles I’d enjoyed as a boy seemed way too bone-crunching for me as a dad. And the “he’ll-pull-through” best wishes I’d felt when I’d watched promising debutants stretchered off in neck braces, became quieter, sadder moments with more meaning.

Footy is great for some boys. It’s a skillful outlet for male physicality, and energy that has to be directed somewhere. It’s a way to stay strong and fit instead of staring at a screen, and it can instill a sense of responsibility. As an organisation, the NRL does important work around healthy ideas of masculinity, encouraging men to talk about mental health issues, and I’m sure their involvement in campaigns to reduce violence against women can help to make an important difference.

For some boys, footy is a lifesaver. But it’s not a sport I want my son playing. The longer-term risks of concussions are only now being properly understood, and the more headlines that come out about CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), the more I realise it’s (almost) as scary as the stretcher and the neck brace.

So Max plays touch footy. I know he might still get injured – kids accidentally run into each other, can pull hammies. But these are the kind of risks I can live with. And from the sideline, there’s more focus on encouraging ducking and weaving than crushing your opponent.

There’s an NRL Touch Premiership on TV now (on Fox League, Kayo and NRL.com), where men’s and women’s elite touch teams play for NRL clubs as curtain-raisers to NRL games. So our family all watches that together now. The way my wife describes it is footy without the blood and the bullshit. That’s probably about right.

Check out the broadcast schedule for NRL Touch Premiership games here. Keep up to date with the tournament by following: instagram.com/touchfootballaustralia