Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

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Concussions: Why you question letting your kids play football

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My second-grade son has a friend over today who came over after he played a youth league football game. Given all the attention lately about concussions, I felt like I should give him a baseline test before he and my son played in the back yard.

If you watched the NFL the first few weeks in its new, we-care-about-concussions mode, you got a sense of how football at all levels is changing in a hurry now that we know concussions aren’t just dings that make you punch-drunkenly shake the cobwebs.

Two incidents, to me, stand out. One is Stewart Bradley of the Philadelphia Eagles in week one, going back onto the field — stunningly — not long after being unable to walk following a hit. The incident had the NFL reviewing how that happened, though as of this writing the Eagles have not been cited by the league for violating its policies regarding concussion testing and treatment.

Bradley, unable to walk.

The Bradley situation was pretty shocking, and I think it explains a lot about the second concussion-related incident I noticed. During week two’s Chicago Bears-Dallas Cowboys game, Fox’s cameras caught Dallas tight end Jason Witten vociferously arguing with a member of the team’s medical staff, which was refusing to clear him to play after Witten suffered a concussion in the fourth quarter. Actually, the staff couldn’t have cleared him to play if it wanted to — once a concussion is diagnosed, a player is not supposed to come back in the game. And, believe me, after all the flak the NFL and the Eagles took over Bradley, no one is going to let anyone with a concussion back into a game.

As Witten was arguing, Chicago Bears radio announcer Tom Thayer, an offensive lineman on Chicago’s 1985 Super Bowl champs, responded, and I’m paraphrasing, that if players are going to be held out because they get dinged, you’re going to have to get used to players missing a lot of time. Thayer said this with a mix of ruefulness — god knows how many concussions Thayer probably played with in his day — and a sense that maybe, grudgingly, it is about time things changed — god knows how many concussions Thayer probably played with in his day.

As of this writing, I’m enjoying my hometown Indianapolis Colts’ crushing of the New York Giants, but I have to say that Thayer is right — if I may read into his comments — that how we view the game of football is changing, in a hurry. Certainly, many studies have pointed out the concussion risk in numerous youth sports, including my beloved basketball.

But football by design is a collision sport, and many fans of the game are openly wondering why anyone would play it, or let their kids play it, sort of like the way people changed their minds about letting their kids box. (My 13-year-old has suddenly developed an interest in wanting to box. We’ll have to chat about that one.)

The post-concussive horror stories are growing more familiar, with the number of ex-pros who turned out to have brains scrambled like eggs after their years of football. But then you hear about Chris Henry, who turned out to have concussion-related brain damage as an active player. Then you hear about the suicide of Penn player Owen Thomas, who despite never having been diagnosed with a concussion may have had a level of impact-related brain damage enough to cause him to kill himself. Then you hear about a sixth-grade football player in Wisconsin who died of concussion-related injuries.

And then you hear about some youth coaches and parents, who presumably should know better or care more about their kids than the game, pressuring to get their addled children back in games, such as this story told by a physician in the Pittsburgh area to the local Post-Gazette:

Dr. Young cannot forget this episode last fall in his league’s championship game for the youngest local level. Adults with the opposing team asked him to approve their star tailback, whom he said blacked out and fell in the huddle before he threw up. Unconsciousness and nausea are prime indicators for a concussion.

“They wanted me to clear him at halftime,” said Dr. Young, still incredulous almost a year later. “Ultimately, the boy sat out the second half. It was a championship game, an important game in their 6- and 7-year-old season. But it was 6 and 7 year olds.”

I’m glad that my children have no interest in playing football, and I’m thankful now that my parents kept my scrawny ass out of the game. (Then again, I played no-pads tackle frequently in my neighborhoods growing up, so I can’t be smug.)

I’m hardly going to stop watching the game, or declare anyone who puts their kids in the game a bad parent. Hopefully, at the least, youth coaches and parents will keep their eyes out for concussion-related symptoms, and get their kids out of the games before any further damage is done. I’d like to think that when my kids’ friends come over, they’re of sound mind.

If Tim Tebow has trouble going pro, then what about your kid?

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Blanket coverage of Florida quarterback/living anti-abortion protest Tim Tebow tends to be annoying, though it’s a godsend (no pun intended, quarterback-who-wears-Bible-verses-on-his-eyeblack) for the first week of the Super Bowl pregame trudge. The coverage of Tebow’s appearance in Saturday’s upcoming Senior Bowl college all-star game has focused on how a player considered one of the greatest college football players ever is going to suck at the professional level.

The consensus is that Tebow, who led his team to two national titles and won the Heisman Trophy his sophomore year, doesn’t have the quick throwing motion or pinpoint accuracy necessary for the NFL. To hear some scouts talk, it’s amazing Tebow would be able even to walk onto an NFL field without his someone tying his shoes for him. From USA Today:

Tim Tebow did not elevate himself into a top-echelon NFL draft QB prospect at this week’s Senior Bowl practices, ESPN analyst Todd McShay said Thursday.

Tebow, who drew attention on Monday when he struggled taking snaps under center in practice, still has talent but doesn’t yet have the makeup for a successful pro quarterback, McShay reasoned.

“He’s practiced, he’s gone through every drill, he’s shown improvement in terms of getting snaps under center and he’s working at it,” McShay said. “But he’s just not there.”

So what does this have to do with your kid?

Every time your athletic child advances a level — whether from 7-year-old to 8-year-old or junior high to high school — the competition gets tougher. Kids who aren’t interested or aren’t able drop out, but the strongest ones stay in. Where they were five leagues, there might now be the same number of kids competing for spots in three. Three junior highs feed into one high school. On a younger level, kids who grew way ahead of everyone else find others catching up to their size, or their ability.

The key to success at negotiating up each level is not the innate talent and mastery of opponents displayed at the earlier level. If that were the case, Tim Tebow would be a top-five NFL pick. Moving up is a process of starting over again, and, yes, while advantages in talent and size help, what helps more is the young athlete’s (and his or her parents’) ability to handle the initial setbacks. If the child athlete can learn from them and improve, then he or she has a shot at continuing to move up. If the child athlete is nothing but frustrated — and this can happen with kids who have shown ability as well as those who have struggled at earlier levels — then it might be time to start thinking about how much of a future a certain sport might have.

Certainly, Tebow is going to be going pro. The Jacksonville Jaguars might want him in hopes he sells tickets to a franchise whose attendance has stumbled. But other teams might say that even though things that worked in college for Tebow won’t work in the pros, he’s shown the mental fortitude to overcome those initial setbacks and improve his game. That will be the determination of whether he thrives in the NFL. And that, usually, is the determination of whether your 9-year-old can handle moving up the ladder as a 10-year-old.

Written by rkcookjr

January 29, 2010 at 2:40 pm

Jets fan's arrest means cheering for the other team is a criminal offense

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From Radley Balko via Eric McErlain comes the video of a New York Jets’ fan being subdued and arrested by San Diego police at Sunday’s Jets-Chargers game for… well, I’m not sure what for.

The guy was being an obnoxious asshole in repeatedly chanting “Jets! Jets! Jets!” in the Chargers’ home stadium. But if being an obnoxious asshole is an arrestable offense, then you’d better put prison bars on every stadium and field in America, right down to Little League. I’ve heard parents at youth league games I coach commit far more borderline harassment from the stands, but at most people just tell them to shut up. (By the way, a nice touch by the Chargers fan shouting “ATTICA! ATTICA!” as the police move in.)

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The Chargers’ fan was identified as the above man. (NSFW language)

I presume someone complained about the Jets’ fan being annoying, but unless he was shouting obscenities or picking fights (and, to be sure, there is an edit between the chants and the arrest that makes you wonder what else happened), that’s just the way it goes. Even at fifth- and sixth-grade basketball games.

Written by rkcookjr

January 18, 2010 at 4:57 pm

Youth sports can be hazardous to your child's health

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The other day the NFL agreed to allow doctors not on individual teams’ payrolls to evaluate and monitor player concussions, as evidence mounts that traumatic brain injuries do long-term damage, that the NFL for years has underestimated that damage, and that this misunderestimation takes place at all levels of all sports, right down to the bitty, barely formed-cranium level. The numbers on youth sports injuries are so stark, sometimes it makes letting your kids play video games all day, every day, seem like the better option.

For good reason, concussions and other youth sports injuries are getting more attention, particularly as it’s clear that parents and coaches, most of them not being physicians or medical personnel, are pretty adept at self-misdiagnosing them. For example, one study out of Canada this year found that most parents and coaches believe you have to lose consciousness to suffer a concussion (you don’t), and that hockey players at the youth level suffer 2.8 concussions per 1,000 player ice-hours. Also, this year Washington became the first state to require a youth player diagnosed with a concussion to get medical clearance before returning to action. That law was inspired by 13-year-old Zackery Lystedt, who got a concussion after a hard football hit, went back in the game, got hit again, got another concussion, and spent 30 days in coma.

The reason the NFL (and other leagues) are taking so much heat about concussions is because of players who, not wanting to buck years of tradition or lose their job, come back too soon after suffering such an injury. The video below shows then-Chicago Blackhawk Martin Havlat taking a vicious hit from Detroit’s Niklas Kronwall in game three of their NHL playoff series last year. Rather than being dead, Havlat came back to play game four. Great for hockey, terrible for Havlat, who someday will be drooling in a cup from the damage he suffered in whatever number concussion this was.

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One major survey found a rapid increase in youth sports injuries that coincided with the rapid increase in the obesity rate, with the report’s authors, American Sports Data, surmising that’s because more kids are getting into more intense organized activities at earlier ages. A study released recently by the American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons counted a current annual count of 3.5 million sports injuries for athletes younger than 14, with half of those injuries coming from another subject of great concern — overuse injuries, another result of kids specializing in a single sport at an early age.

In my mind, that number isn’t just about kids (and/or their parents) pushing for that elusive college scholarship or pro career. It’s also about a family building its entire social life and network around youth sports. I know of people (I won’t say who they are to protect the guilty) who were told, after their teenaged son suffer two concussions in hockey (the first one, his coach sent him back on the ice, even after he blacked out and threw up), their doctor told them to get him off the ice immediately if they ever wanted their son to go to college. Given the family had traveled all over the country and establishing themselves as Hockey Parents since their son was 5, they were hesitant to follow that advice — and didn’t. Their son, a bright kid, ended up barely graduating high school. Oh, and he played lacrosse, too — just the sport for someone with a history of head injuries.0405091950a

Of course, you don’t have to be a hardcore travel sports parent to feel the pressure of coming back quickly from injury. There seems to be something primal as an athlete that doesn’t let you easily accepting being hurt. My then-11-year-old son last year sprained his right foot in the third quarter of his final basketball game of the year. I had to carry him off the court. Yet in the fourth quarter, my son, not the most competitive person I’ve ever known, asked if he could get back in the game. I said, uh, no. Later, when we went to the urgent care center to confirm the sprain, my son (right, waiting to go to his X-ray) made sure to tell everyone he misdirected the shot taken right before he landed on the shooter’s foot.

On the fifth- and sixth-grade team I’m coaching now. I have two kids who are asthmatic. I have to instruct the referee and the boys’ mothers to jump in if they see anything wrong, because I tell the kids to raise their hands if they’re hurting, but I’m not sure they will. One of the boys, for whatever reason, never told me he was asthmatic. I learned only in a quarter break when he went to throw up. The other boy is growing more intense with every game, and doesn’t want to get off the floor.

So, in that sense, they are no different than the 30 of 160 players who told The Associated Press in a survey that they have downplayed the effects of a concussion.

In light of all this, what are we supposed to do to prevent sports injuries? The first thing to do might be to make sure we never get the idea we can make sports injury-free, and that we can make athletes recover as long as the rest of us do when we get hurt. Accidents will happen, and athletes will want to play. It appears the best efforts are to see where we can best mitigate risk, and protect athletes from themselves. The efforts on concussions are good places to start, as well as the growing awareness of how single-sport specialization causes injury.

But perhaps on a youth level, the strongest message needs to be made to the coaches and parents that the child playing is not a million-dollar athlete, or even a potential one. Above all else, you need to protect children, so when they’re hurt, you treat them like normal people, not like pieces of athletic meat. If it means you lose a game, if it means you lose a chance at a scholarship (assuming the child ever had one), so be it.

Maybe I’m the weirdo, but I think children are better served, mentally and physically, exploring all sorts of different activities, sports and elsewhere. Some kids do find their niche early, and that’s great. But you also have to be a parent and let your child get exposed to other things just in case that niche isn’t going to work out. At least pro athletes who suffer injuries have team-paid medical care and their million-dollar contracts to fall back on. Generally, your child does not.

Written by rkcookjr

November 24, 2009 at 1:53 pm

The football coach who never punts (not Bill Belichick)

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New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick is being roundly roasted for going for it (unsuccessfully) on fourth-down-and-two from his own 28-yard-line, allowing the Indianapolis Colts a short touchdown drive to come back for a 35-34 win Nov. 15. (’s Pete Prisco called the decision “fourth and jackass.”)

One high school coach might understand Belichick’s decision not to punt: Kevin Kelley, head coach of Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Ark.

In September, Kelley was profiled in Sports Illustrated for his unorthodox decision never to punt, nor kick a field goal or extra point. About 75 percent of his team’s kickoffs are onside kicks. Why does he do this?

Pulaski hasn’t punted since 2007 (when it did so as a gesture of sportsmanship in a lopsided game), and here’s why: “The average punt in high school nets you 30 yards, but we convert around half our fourth downs, so it doesn’t make sense to give up the ball,” Kelley says. “Besides, if your offense knows it has four downs instead of three, it totally changes the game. I don’t believe in punting and really can’t ever see doing it again.”

He means ever. Consider the most extreme scenario, say, fourth-and-long near your own end zone. According to Kelley’s data (much of which came from a documentary he saw), when a team punts from that deep, the opponents will take possession inside the 40-yard line and will then score a touchdown 77% of the time. If they recover on downs inside the 10, they’ll score a touchdown 92% of the time. “So [forsaking] a punt, you give your offense a chance to stay on the field. And if you miss, the odds of the other team scoring only increase 15 percent. It’s like someone said, ‘[Punting] is what you do on fourth down,’ and everyone did it without asking why.”

The onside kicks? According to Kelley’s figures, after a kickoff the receiving team, on average, takes over at its own 33-yard line. After a failed onside kick the team assumes possession at its 48. Through the years Pulaski has recovered about a quarter of its onside kicks. “So you’re giving up 15 yards for a one-in-four chance to get the ball back,” says Kelley. “I’ll take that every time!” Why not attempt to return punts? “Especially in high school, where the punts don’t go so far,” he says, “it’s not worth the risk of fumbling or a penalty.”

Much of Kelley’s analysis has support among number crunchers. In 2005 David Romer, a prominent Cal economist, published a study that argued that over the course of the three NFL seasons he studied there had been 1,068 fourth-down situations in which teams, mathematically, would have been better off going for it. In all but 109 cases the teams either kicked or punted.

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Kevin Kelley, not talking about punting.

It’s hard to argue with Kelley’s success. Since he took over Pulaski’s program in 1997, he’s 76-26-1, with Class 5A (largest school) championships in 2003 and 2008. His team, 8-3 this season, plays Greenwood Nov. 20 in the Arkansas state playoff quarterfinals.

And David Romer isn’t the only one making the case that pro teams should go for it more often. In the New York Times’ Fifth Down blog, statistical analysis hobbyist Brian Burke outlined why Belichick’s decision, though it didn’t work, was best:

With 2:08 left and the Colts with only one timeout, a successful 4th-and-2 conversion wins the game for all practical purposes. A conversion on 4th-and-2 would be successful 60 percent of the time. Historically, in a situation with 2:00 left and needing a TD to either win or tie, teams get the TD 53 percent of the time from that field position. The total win probability for the 4th-down conversion attempt would therefore be:

(0.60 * 1) + (0.40 * (1-0.53)) = 0.79 WP (WP stands for win probability)

A punt from the 28 typically nets 38 yards, starting the Colts at their 34. Teams historically get the TD 30 percent of the time in that situation. So the punt gives the Pats about a 0.70 WP.

Statistically, the better decision would be to go for it, and by a good amount. However, these numbers are baselines for the league as a whole. You’d have to expect the Colts had a better than 30 percent chance of scoring from their 34, and an accordingly higher chance to score from the Pats’ 28. But any adjustment in their likelihood of scoring from either field position increases the advantage of going for it. You can play with the numbers any way you like, but it’s pretty hard to come up with a realistic combination of numbers that makes punting the better option. At best, you could make it a wash.

So what’s the controversy about Belichick’s decision then, other than stick-in-the-mud, stat-nerd-hating types who are better at second-guessing than coaching? It has a lot to do with how you would adjust that statistics in a specific situation.

First, let’s look at Kelley. One of the most obvious reasons to go with no-punting-and-kicking in high school is because kickers in that age group are for the most part, shall we say, unreliable, as Kelley points out. The chances of a shanked punt, dropped ball, bad snap or block are much higher because the skill level isn’t so great. That’s the reason why you see most youth football games without punts and kicks, except kickoffs. (Also, a lot of youth leagues march the ball off, say, 30 yards for a “punt” rather than have teams kick.)

Also, Kelley coaches at a private school, meaning he’s not beholden to whatever the local parents breed. I’m not intimating he recruits illegally. But Pulaski has the opportunity to attract kids from all over the Little Rock area. The school has a long tradition of football excellence, so certainly there are top players who do what they can to get in. No disrespect to Kelley’s coaching ability, but he has a steadily high level of talent compared with most of his competition. If you’re a small school with undersized players that regularly get stomped on, eschewing punting and kicking is probably not going to make much of a difference. For Kelley, going for it, by his reckoning, means his team scores 84 percent of the time it has to convert a fourth down, according to a Nov. 4 profile by The Associated Press.

If Kelley were to criticize Belichick, it would be for punting too much. When Belichick decided to go for it late against Indianapolis, he had to burn his team’s final timeout to figure out a play with quarterback Tom Brady, as well as stop the confusion that saw his punt team heading onto the field while his offense was not leaving it. That last timeout became crucial because without it, Belichick couldn’t challenge the spot of the ball on the fourth-down pass to Kevin Faulk, the one marked (correctly) for a one-yard gain when he needed two.

Of course, there’s a reason NFL coaches punt and kick. Unlike in high school, punters and kickers tend to be consistently reliable. Also, you have to weigh not only where you are on the field, but who is going to get the ball if you fail. Perhaps Belichick’s call, going for it on fourth-and-short with his team up six points, is more defensible if he’s in Indianapolis territory. But it’s also a lot more defensible if the quarterback is, say, Cleveland’s Derek Anderson, the worst-rated in the NFL, rather than Peyton Manning, a contender for best quarterback of all-time.

The heat that Belichick is getting for not punting will guarantee that coaches at all levels not go in the same direction as Kelley did. I’m having a hard time finding coaches, at any level, who are as anti-punt as Kelley. Then again, Belichick has the job security, thanks to three Super Bowl rings, to get away with making that call. Kelley, thanks his success as his inability to get fired by his boss (Kelley is also athletic director) also has the security of trying whatever wild-ass thing comes into his head without the world coming down on him.

Whatever you think of Belichick’s call — and as a Colts fan, I whole-heartedly supported it — and Kelley’s stance, you might agree that it’s unfortunate that too many coaches don’t have the leeway to try something different once in a while, just to see if the conventional wisdom isn’t so wise after all.

ADDENDUM: I saw over at that Belichick wasn’t the only coach to make this gamble over the weekend. From the Detroit Free Press:

Holt’s 20-3 lead over defending Division 1 champ Rockford was down to 20-13, and Holt had the ball on its 29 in a fourth-and-less-than-1 situation with less than 2 minutes left, and the scenario was playing out in Holt coach Al Slamer’s head.

“You know how you sense the momentum has changed?” Slamer asked. “If we punt, we give them the ball on the 30- or 40-yard line, they go down and score and win the game.”

Instead, Slamer decides to go for it — ON HIS OWN 29! Did his assistant coaches try to call for a competency hearing?

“Absolutely,” Slamer said. “The testosterone was making the decision. Doggone it, it was just time to get half a yard.”

But what if Holt didn’t make the first down and hands Rockford the ball on the 29? “It’s one of those that if it works out, it’s great,” Slamer said. “If it doesn’t work out, you commit hari-kari at the 50-yard line.”

Put away the knife, Coach.

Holt made the first down, and on the next play, Jake Gallimore rumbled 70 yards for the clinching touchdown in Holt’s 27-13 victory.

And it all boiled down to Slamer’s gutsy/suicidal call. “What the heck. If you can’t get half a yard, you don’t deserve to be in the semis,” he said.

If you missed my youth bowling live tweet…

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You can see it at It went great, until my Blackberry’s network crapped out in the seventh frame of the last game.

bobbys-cameravideo-100Last year’s Penguins, now this year’s Field Force Monkeys: Liam, Ryan, Nick and Trevor.

The live-tweet was part of my ultimately futile effort to show support for Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, under fire from the NFL gendarmes for his desire to tweet during games. The NFL is upset that somebody might discover nothing interesting goes on during Bengals games.

I call this futile because the NFL will do something to Ochocinco after he does whatever Twitter thing he promises to do during his game tomorrow, and that Ochocinco took his grandma to the new Tyler Perry movie instead of following my in-game tweets. Well, I can hold out hope he’ll catch up with them later, and appreciate everything I’m doing for him.

Written by rkcookjr

September 12, 2009 at 2:56 pm

Like Chad Ochocinco, I have a tweet surprise coming for my son's bowling league

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Big-time sports is shaken up over Twitter, afraid that athletes and coaches twiddling their texting thumbs during games will distract themselves from their jobs or, more importantly, distract fans from the live television coverage they’re getting paid billions for.

It appears Chad Ochocinco, the Cincinnati Bengals receiver formerly known as Chad Johnson (he changed his last name to match the nickname he received because of his jersey number, 85 — wait, shouldn’t his nickname be “Ochenta y Cinco”?), is planning to challenge the NFL’s ban on player tweeting. He’s planning what is being called a “tweet surprise” for the Bengals’ opening game Sunday, some loophole he’s found in the rule that prevents him, his representatives or fans he signals in the stands to post his in-game thoughts to any social networking site.

“I’ve been really, really quiet, and there’s a storm coming Sunday,” he told reporters. “That’s one of the things that I do when I’m back: I have something. I keep you on the edge of your seat. NFL, I would like to apologize to you guys early. I understand. I read all the fine print in the letters you sent, but I did find loopholes. I found loopholes.”

Or, as he posted to his Twitter feed: “Storm coming!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Well, I have a storm coming!!!!!!!!!!!!!!, too. It’s going to roll out, no pun intended, Saturday during the first match of my 6-year-old son’s bowling season.

In solidarity with Chad Ochocinco, I’m going to live-tweet my son’s match!

I know you’re dying for the behind-the-scenes look at what goes on during a crazy youth league Saturday at the Brunswick Zone in Oak Lawn, Ill. OK, maybe you don’t. But if the No Fun League can stop a man who changed his name to friggin’ Ochocinco from tweeting, any of us who can tweet during sports events should do so, just to let it and other leagues know we want to be social no matter what you think.

In fact, this weekend I would encourage all of you to tweet your events. Maybe it’s your daughter’s swim meet, or you son’s wrestling tournament. (God knows there’s plenty of downtime in those that needs filling, and the Sunday newspaper isn’t as large as it used to be.) You could tweet the youth football game you coach, or the basketball game you’re playing in. For the latter, try to master switching your Blackberry to your off-dribble hand as you do your crossover.

The important thing is, fill up your Twitter feed with anything and everything about whatever sports you and your children are involved with this weekend. Heck, live-tweet a neighborhood game of Ghost in the Graveyard (though, for legal reasons, you should make sure you have a child directly involved in it). If you just want to follow my feed, go to

Now is the time to strike the blow for sports social media freedom. Do it so that someday you never start a sentence, first they came for Ochocinco, but I did not speak out because I was not a pro football player…

Photo_10Please do it. Chad Ochocinco is begging you.

Written by rkcookjr

September 11, 2009 at 12:58 am