As youth, high school, and college football practices signal the start of a new season, one formerly prominent youth coach has a message for parents: Don't sign your kids up for football.

Back in 2004, Mike Oliver founded the Naperville Patriots, a team in the American Youth Football league, and coached the team until 2007. He had previously coached his son Mikey in the Naperville Youth Football League (previously the only league in the area). The 50-year-old also played high school and college ball himself. 

Now, years after his and his son’s football careers, he's changed his tune. "Knowing what I know now, I don't think it's a game that kids should have anything to do with," says the Naperville resident, adding that he isn't advocating for an end to the NCAA or NFL. "For adults, if they sign off on the risks, that's their prerogative."

Oliver says he was convinced by evidence linking football injuries to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, especially in the cases of Dave Duerson and Junior Seau, both of whom committed suicide. Although CTE has been in the news for years, a recent study featured in the New York Times last month has brought it back into the spotlight: Researchers examined the brains of 111 deceased NFL players, and 110 of those were found to have CTE.

We spoke with Oliver last week, in lieu of the upcoming season, about his views on the subject.

You coached your son Michael in the NYFL in Naperville before starting the Naperville Patriots. Why start a new team?

The idea was to do things the right way. It wasn’t about about having the fanciest uniforms or the best players. It’s youth football, it should be a family event where the kids come first and the focus is not winning at all costs. We wound up becoming one of the top youth programs in the nation. [Since 2004, the Naperville Patriots have won eight national titles.]

Mike Oliver with his son Mikey  Photo: Courtesy of Mike Oliver

So, if you could do it all again, knowing what you know now, you would not have let your son play youth football and maybe would not have played yourself?

Yes, that’s true. In the past I was hesitant to say this publicly, because I thought maybe people would call me a hypocrite. I started a football program. I played, my son played.

I liken it to smoking in the 1940s and 1950s. Back then they knew it wasn’t good for you, but thought it just made your breath stink and your teeth yellow. Fast forward and now they know you’ll get lung cancer and die. I think football is in a similar situation right now. There has been a lot of misinformation, denial, and damage control. Because everybody knows it’s big business, there’s a lot of money involved.

And then former football players in their 40s and 50s started killing themselves…

Yeah. There was a certain bravado when I played. You would hear things like, “You got your bell rung,” when you got hit really hard. Or, “I got hit so hard my mouthpiece was full of snot.” “Someone had to help me into the locker room at halftime.” You couldn’t see straight, but you didn’t want the coach to take you out. That’s what it was like back then. You’d have some bruises and scars, like the bad breath and yellow teeth of smoking in the 1950s. But now, they know you are doing damage, permanent damage, and it’s cumulative and you can have problems down the road.

Many focus on concussions, but there are a lot of doctors who say it’s the repetitive hitting and not just concussions that cause damage.

That’s the thing. It’s cumulative and they know now that it’s not good. As an adult, you can buy a pack of cigarettes that says "this causes cancer." I think it’s the same thing in football. I don’t think that youth leagues and youth football are a good idea. I know it may be tough for colleges to recruit, but they’ll find a way. I don’t even think high school football is that good of an idea. Now college and pros, at that point you’re over 18 and if someone wants to put a contract in front of you that says, "If you come play football for us, we’ll give you a $200,000 education for free," it’s a business decision and you’re an adult. I do think on those contracts it should say, "Playing football is hazardous to your health."

As for the parents of the kids currently in youth football, do you you think they are in denial?

I do. They are in denial. It’s no good for you. What I would tell you is that I don’t believe football is one of those sports that you have to start playing at six years old to make it as a professional, and there’s proof of that. Look at Kyle Long. Look at Jarrett Payton. 

You said that your son Michael suffers from some of the effects of football even now, a few years after his college career ended, right?

Yeah. He’s told me at times he gets a little foggy. All in all, he hasn’t had many repercussions, but only time will tell. He’s had concussions and I think anyone who has played that game is lying to you if they say they never had a concussion. If your kid is a decent player and is mixing it up, he’s going to get his bell rung. I don’t care if you teach him to play this way or that way, it’s the way it is. The other thing is, at the youth level, there’s not a lot of regulation. Some of the coaches have the kids hitting all the time. When I ran the Patriots and people would see my practices, people would scratch their heads and ask why we don’t hit. I’d tell them that it’s not necessary. It’s not necessary to hit all the time and it’s actually counter-productive. We’d work a lot of fundamentals.

Was it because of what you knew?

I knew at the time that it wasn’t productive. They didn’t have the studies out back then, I just knew it wasn’t good. The more you’ve played, the more you know how long it takes to recover from hitting.

The NFL would point to changes and improvements it has made, like changing the kickoff and improving player helmets.

It’s nonsense. Here’s the deal. The NFL is a $10 billion-a-year machine. [Last year, the league raked in $13 billion.] You can only change the game so much. It’s a brutal contact sport.

Have you considered getting more active in discouraging kids from playing football? Are you still in contact with people you knew from the Naperville Patriots? 

I have a full-time job. Not everyone who quit smoking becomes an anti-smoking advocate. I'm not in contact with the Patriots anymore and I haven't received any pushback. But if friends or anyone ask me if their child should play football, I tell them no.