Kids across America are donning jerseys and helmets this week, heading back onto the football field.
And while their thoughts may be on the promised glory of the Friday night lights, many parents are thinking about their children’s brains and wincing with every helmet clash.
Parent are understandably nervous about the effects of tackle football on their children after a recent study from Boston University found chronic traumatic encephalopathy (a neurogenerative brain disease) in 99 percent of the deceased football players’ brains donated to the study.
Out of 202 brains of former football players, chronic brain trauma was diagnosed in 177, including in all but one of the NFL players, several of the high school players and the majority of the college players.
“There's no question that there's a problem in football. That people who play football are at risk for this disease," said Dr. Ann McKee, director of Boston University's CTE Center and co-author of the study, in CNN.com article.
The study does recognize potential bias because relatives may have submitted the donated brains due to clinical symptoms their loved ones showed while alive.
The high numbers, however, have raised questions on whether tackle football is also detrimental for younger children and have reignited the discussion on ways to save one of America’ s favorite pastime without endangering its youth.
My son is only 1 year old so this decision is far in the future for me, but I’ve watched friends grapple with the central question: Should we let our kid play football? Their sons want to play. All their friends play. People have been playing football forever, right?
Some of my friends decided to put off tackle football until junior high, which means their son is suiting up for his first tackle team this fall. His mother is already anxious about him going head to head with his opponents, and wonders if they’ve made the right decision.
No doubt many parents are in the same spot this fall, watching their kids take the field with the recent study’s ominous statistics lurking in the background.
Leigh Steinberg, the sports agent who inspired the movie “Jerry Maguire,” weighed in on the debate, calling concussions a “ticking time bomb” in an article on thepostgame.com.
And while the legendary sports agent doesn’t want to see football fade away, he does think the sport needs to reinvent how it keeps its youngest players safely. Namely, he suggests:
1. Reaching a consensus on what age tackle football doesn’t mean unnecessary brain risk. Some experts advocate tackle football should not be played before age 14. Others say the minimum should be ninth grade.
2. Teaching safer blocking and tackling techniques.
3. Upgrading the quality of the equipment at the high school level, and creating maintenance standards.
4. Requiring baseline cognitive testing before a high school athlete ever steps foot onto the field.
Whether you agree with Steinberg’s suggestions or not, sweeping the problem of brain injury and concussions under the bleachers doesn’t help anyone. And since there’s no way teenage boys and football parents are going to just bid farewell to the sport, the answer has to be in new procedures, new standards and an awareness that tackle football may not be appropriate for developing brains.
That doesn’t mean America has to swear off the game, but it may mean younger kids have to learn their skills in the flag football arena.
Tackle football is a dearly held tradition for many families, who have been playing the sport without serious injury for generations. And if my son comes to me down the road and wants to play football, I’ll sign him up for a non-tackle team in a heartbeat. But helmets, pads and tackling techniques will have to wait because I am far less interested in saving a sport than I am in saving my son.