The NFL’s Approach to Kids Today is Out of Bounds


Josh Golin

Today, CCFC released a groundbreaking new report, OUT OF BOUNDS: The NFL’s Intensive Campaign to Target Children, exposing the National Football League’s marketing blitz aimed at kids. The league’s new strategies to woo kids have serious consequences, including increased sedentary screen time, exposure to junk-food marketing, loss of valuable instructional time in school, encouraging gambling behaviors, and exposure to the league’s off-the-field controversies.

Writing this report was difficult for me. I’ve been a diehard professional football fan since elementary school, the age when the majority of the NFL's fans first become interested in the games. For the past 35 years, I’ve spent nearly every Sunday during football season watching televised games and the Giants’ four Super Bowl titles are among the most thrilling moments of my life. 

So I was deeply troubled to discover that the NFL’s approach to children is now the same as mega-corporations like Disney and McDonald’s. The NFL not only wants children to “consume” its products (licensed merchandise and televised football), it wants to immerse kids in its brand 24/7. The league wants children to play online NFL games and watch NFL cartoons when they’re not watching football broadcasts. It wants to target kids in their classrooms. It wants kids to eat NFL Happy Meals. And it wants kids to spend hours each week playing fantasy football – even though addiction experts warn fantasy sports are a gateway to gambling.

This approach has caused a sea change in how kids experience the NFL compared to when I was a kid. Back then, if we wanted a dose of football on non-NFL game days, we were responsible for generating it. We played active pick-up games instead of sedentary video games. We talked football instead of watching NFL advertoons. Our “fantasy sports” consisted of pretend play where we invented elaborate narratives featuring football, bad guys, and the occasional extra-terrestrial. And of course, the kids who weren’t into football – and there were many – weren’t force-fed the NFL by our teachers via branded “educational” materials.

I know from my own experience that my childhood love of football has affected my perception of the NFL as an adult. There is no doubt that my fondness for football has made it more difficult to acknowledge the severity of the NFL’s concussion crisis than it has been for me to recognize worker safety issues in other industries. Or that growing up loving the NFL inured me to the racist slur “Redskin” when it’s used in a football context. 

And even though I work for Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, my lifetime loyalty to the NFL made it harder to recognize that the league’s recent targeting of children is harmful. Whether you’re football fan or not, I hope you’ll agree with me that the NFL’s marketing to kids is Out of Bounds

Click here to learn more about the report’s findings and download your own copy.


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Funding a Dangerous Game

I understand that one of the main focuses of this organization is to get kids away from commercial media and being more active, mentally and physically. With that, you probably don't want to spend much time discouraging exercise, even if it's somewhat dangerous. Josh talks about playing pickup games when he was young, but I doubt he and his friends had full sets of helmets and pads available to them the way so many elementary and middle school aged children do now. And the NFL is doing its part to promote tackle football at young ages. One reason is that, like Josh mentions, playing the game allows kids to emulate their favorite players, and in turn leads them to want to watch those players their teams more. Second, their promotion of "safe" football with their Heads Up certification of youth coaches is a marketing ploy meant to undermine the growing body of research showing that tackle football is an inherently dangerous to players' brains, even ones that never receive a concussion. Somehow, children running into each other as hard as they can over 60 times per game is supposed to be safe. And if that is safe, professional ball bust be even safer with the additional coaching and technology.

Like Josh, I've been a fan of football since my preteen years. When a middle school football program was set up in my home town I couldn't wait to sign up. I started playing in 6th grade, and continued playing tackle football through my freshman year of high school. In middle school, most of our coaches were just interested community members who wanted to get back into the game or parents who wanted to coach their kids. Few of them had any real training as coaches in general, not to mention training in specific issues of head injuries and their prevention.
While "bad" tackles were discouraged, "good" tackling was really only defined by wrapping up and not slowing down before the hit. We were constantly told to keep our heads up to prevent injury and make sure we didn't lose sight of the ball-carrier. So in tackling drills, my teammates and I might keep our heads up, but often times we would still hit each other with the top of our shoulders (that's where the pads are, so that's what you hit with, right?). Our coaches didn't explain that this too was a poor technique because it could lead to stingers (compression and stretching of peripheral nerves causing temporary pain and loss of function). So, when I would crack shoulders with my teammates, sometimes I would get shooting pain down my arm and be unable to wrap up and make the tackle. Not making the tackle was the problem, and pain was not an acceptable excuse. Pain was part of the game. And that's a big problem.
So much of youth football focuses on "toughening up". Hitting hurts, so you either get used to and ignore the pain, or you stop playing. New research is emerging about the risk of long term injury young players are exposed to. 6-12 year olds might not hit as hard as high school, college, or professional players, but their brains and neck muscles are still developing meaning they are more vulnerable to damage, even from sub-concussive hits. However, an even greater danger than the physical immaturity of these players is their mental immaturity. When elementary and middle school students are put together and told by adults to hit each other, hit harder, more often, and not cry or complain, their limited senses self-preservation are being overruled. They are told not to listen to the most basic messages that their bodies send them. If they do give in to the pain, they risk being called babies, wimps, or, especially as they get older, pussies.
Here again, it’s not just that these players are highly impressionable, they also lack the mental tools to weigh the risks and benefits of their actions and to advocate for themselves. Do we really expect a seven or twelve year old to turn to their red-faced coach and say "Hey coach, I know I'm supposed to play through the pain, but that last hit was pretty hard, and while I don't think I have a concussion, I do think it would be best if I sat out at least a couple minutes until I'm sure I am ready for another play and to make sure that I don't get hit hard too many times in quick succession." That would be tough enough for players that take part in high profile hits. Now imagine that coming from a lineman whose sole purpose is to move one or more players out of the way on each play, mostly by hitting them harder than they get hit. It's just not going to happen.
So the NFL promotes a sport for young players where under-trained coaches give inadequate instruction and players lack the capacity to understand the damage that they are incurring or to advocate for their own safety. All so the NFL can keep its fan base going strong and perpetuate the myth that years of hits that directly or indirectly involve the head pose no risk of substantial, long-term brain damage.

So, while I agree that NFL branded games, food, and educational materials are a perverse money-making ploy, this is only one part of a broader issue. Tackle football is inherently dangerous. Even run-of-the-mill hits, when strung together over the course of games and seasons, greatly increase the risk of brain injury. And kids as young as five and six years old are incapable of understanding those risks and advocating for themselves in the face of all this marketing and pressure from coaches and parents.