More than 200,000 kids have bailed out on football over the past few years because of growing concern by their parents over the dangers of ‘mild traumatic brain injuries‘ more commonly known as concussions. And now Hollywood is about to release a new film with Will Smith showcasing the problem and the NFL’s early efforts to hide the problem.
For a growing number of parents, the risks are just too great, particularly when numerous studies confirm that repeated impacts to the head – even supposedly mild blows – can lead to long-term brain damage. Even body blows and whiplash where the neck snaps back but the head itself isn’t impacted can injure the brain.
In recent years concussions have moved into the spotlight as autopsies on a number of former NFL players who committed suicide showed strong evidence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Prior to their suicides, the families and friends of these players reported bizarre changes in their behavior, including depression, drug abuse, and a variety of cognitive issues.
Of equal concern to the NFL, NCAA, and even youth clubs is the threat of lawsuits from parents who later claim football (or another concussion-heavy sport) led to behavioral problems – or worse – in their children. Earlier this year, for example, Debra Pyka filed a $5 million lawsuit against Pop Warner football, the nation’s largest youth football organization with nearly a quarter-million players, claiming her son’s CTE and subsequent suicide were caused by his participation in the group’s football program.
When professional players, the likes of the President of the United States, and other authority figures question the suitability of children playing tackle football, it is easy to understand why so many parents are pulling the plug on the sport. Indeed, with developing bodies and brains that are particularly susceptible to injury, even many of the game’s most ardent fans and proponents argue against youth football.
If the numbers are any indication, their concerns are being heeded. Between 2010-2012, Pop Warner saw its largest drop ever in player participation – a decrease of 23,612 players. And football isn’t alone: lacrosse, hockey, soccer and other sports have been implicated as serious causes of concussion. It also should be noted that participation in high school football actually went up in 2014, breaking a four-year decline.
But for every concerned parent or authority arguing for an end to youth tackle football, there are an equal if not greater number of experts pointing out that the myriad benefits of youth sports – football included – far outweigh the risks. Says Steven Broglio, director of the University of Michigan’s Neurotrauma Research Lab, kids participating in youth sports enjoy “cognitive, physical, emotional and social benefits that outweigh everything.”
And, when measured within the context of so-called ‘normal’ childhood activities – bicycling, skateboarding, etc. – football and other sports don’t look all that bad.
From the perspective of many neurologists and other brain experts, there are some important steps that must be taken by both parents and coaches alike:
- Take concussions very, very seriously – neurologists maintain one diagnostic test is not enough and existing rest schedules may still be insufficient, especially for younger brains.
- Ensure coaches and trainers are adequately prepared to recognize the signs and risks of concussions and to take them seriously.
- Reduce the number of impacts to the head, including eliminating or seriously curtailing tackling during practice, moving players out of the three-point stance where a lot of initial contact originates, and coaching ‘heads-up football.’
- Urging kids to think safety and long-term health first, not ‘playing through’ an injury, especially one to the head.
The bottom line: While the benefits of youth sports far outweigh the risks posed by concussions and other sport-related injuries, the truth is that clubs, coaches, parents and kids themselves need to support the new focus on protecting player health and safety and seek new ways to protect those young minds.
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