Should Your Kid Play Football?
One of the more heated parenting topics of our day is whether kids should be allowed to play football (that is, American football). And the recent collapse of Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin has only brought it to the forefront of most parents' minds.
If you’re still on the fence about it or don’t know the health risks of head injuries among young children, we’ll be blunt: Football is a dangerous sport. But it’s also a sport that boys and men have played for generations, and more recently, girls and women have joined in on the fun.
So, if it’s so dangerous, why are we only now talking about it? The short answer is that medical breakthroughs take time, and even when they do happen, they hardly change behaviors overnight. People still smoke cigarettes. We still use and discard plastic with alarming ease. And alcoholism kills thousands of people every year.
With football, we’re growing up as a society. But there are still powerful forces at work that want to deny the reality that this sport and others with hard contact are simply dangerous for youth.
Changing a Tune
And to say that it's a new debate is actually inaccurate, as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued its first guidelines around youth football in 1953, saying it’s not safe for children under 12. This recommendation stood for decades until it was readdressed just a few years ago. At that point, science had tackled the question of football’s safety and concluded that repeated blows to the head would indeed turn your brain into mush.
That made it extra bizarre, according to Sports CAPP, when the AAP changed its tune in 2015, stating that playing football should be a decision left to parents and children because in order to make football safe — i.e., removing tackling and hard contact — the game would be rendered unrecognizable. And we can’t do that to something that, for many Americans, has replaced the Sunday tradition of attending religious services.
Except for, well, we can, and we probably should. The facts that back up the assumption that football is a dangerous sport for children speak pretty loudly, and we're here to show you how.
Addressing Contact Sports
Before we do that, however, let’s address a few things for clarity’s sake. When we refer to football, we are referring specifically to tackle football. There are variations of the traditional game, and those will be discussed as well, but for the sake of children’s safety, the contact version is the dangerous one.
And although this article is specifically about football, any contact sport in which the head requires some perfunctory protective device presents the same risks to children. Think hockey, rugby, boxing, lacrosse and so on. Football, however, is America’s most popular sport.
America’s Favorite Mistake
While baseball is believed to be America’s pastime, football is its vice of choice. And despite its popularity slightly waning in recent years, it’s still the preferred sport of 37 percent of the country, according to Gallup. To put that in perspective, basketball is second at 11 percent and baseball, third at 9 percent.
It’s so popular, in fact, that 5.5 million Americans reported playing tackle football in 2017, 596,000 of whom were women or girls. About 1.06 million of those football players were of high school age (a 5 percent decline since 2008), while 225,000 were in Pop Warner football programs (or youth football).
Unlike baseball and basketball, however, football is dangerous. It’s a hard-contact sport that greatly impacts players' bodies, none more so than the brain. In fact, concussions accounted for 26.3 percent of all high school football injuries in the 2017-18 season.
What Happens to the Brain
Watching football for only a few minutes will reveal how the head is used in the game. Players lead with it when smashing into each other. While helmets look and feel strong and protective, that is actually quite deceiving.
Julian Bailes, a renowned neurosurgeon and one-time National Football League (NFL) team doctor, explained to "GQ" magazine in 2009 just how irrelevant the helmet is in football:
“Helmets are not the answer. The brain has a certain amount of play inside the skull. It’s buoyed up in the cerebral spinal fluid. It sits in this fluid, floats. When the head suddenly stops, the brain continues, reverberates back. So, when I hit, boom, my skull stops, but my brain continues forward for about a centimeter. Boom, boom, it reverberates back. So, you could have padding that’s a foot thick. It’s not going to change the acceleration/deceleration phenomenon. And a lot of these injuries are rotational. The fibers get torn with rotation. You’ve got a face mask that’s like a fulcrum sitting out here: You get hit, your head swings around. That’s when a lot of these fibers are sheared — by rotation. A helmet can’t ever prevent that.”
Who Uncovered the Dangers of Football?
These repeated blows to the brain lead to a disease called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). One of the biggest problems with damage to the brain is that, unlike other organs in the body, it cannot repair itself following some injuries. People with CTE slowly deteriorate and experience many other problems, like depression, suicidal thoughts, anger, blackouts, and disturbing and strange behaviors.
Dr. Bennet Omalu first discovered this unique brain disease and named it CTE after examining the brain of legendary NFL Player Mike Webster, who died in 2002 as just a shadow of his former self. Omalu’s discovery and the aftermath was told in great detail in the previously referenced 2009 "GQ" article.
In the former player’s brain, Omalu found “brown and red splotches. All over the place. Large accumulations of tau proteins. Tau was kind of like sludge, clogging up the works, killing cells in regions responsible for mood, emotions and ecutive functioning.”
Scorned and Ridiculed
Omalu had made an incredible breakthrough, and he thought the NFL would be excited and embrace the findings, so they could start to do something to prevent CTE or find a treatment for it. Instead, the exact opposite happened.
The NFL denied the validity of the research and conclusions, bringing in countless doctors to ridicule Omalu’s assertions and call him naive and untrained. After all, the NFL has a billion-dollar reputation to uphold, and admitting that its game is dangerous and deadly wouldn’t be good for business. Best to just play dumb, aggressively so.
Indeed, it wasn’t until 2016 after the settlement of a lawsuit brought by 5,000 former players that the NFL even acknowledged that CTE is real.
Science Too Strong to Ignore
Boston University has an entire center dedicated to the study of CTE. After it released the results of a study into the disease in 2017, senior author Robert Stern told the “Boston Globe" that “I’m at a point where I feel comfortable saying that, based on logic and common sense and the growing totality of the research, I don’t think kids should be playing tackle football.’’
Omalu also makes a strong argument against youth football in a book he published in 2018 and in a 2015 op-ed he wrote for "The New York Times" in which he points out that, once medicine discovered the dangers of smoking, alcohol abuse and asbestos, major restrictions were put in place to limit kids’ exposure to them. But since he and others have discovered the many dangers of brain trauma in adult former football players — many of whom died by suicide as a result of their horrendous health problems — very little has been done to officially limit or ban youth football. And that’s despite concrete findings like this:
“If a child who plays football is subjected to advanced radiological and neurocognitive studies during the season and several months after the season, there can be evidence of brain damage at the cellular level of brain functioning, even if there were no documented concussions or reported symptoms,” Dr. Omalu wrote in his op-ed. “If that child continues to play over many seasons, these cellular injuries accumulate to cause irreversible brain damage, which we know now by the name Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE.”
NFL Cares About Its Image and Profits
If you think the NFL is decent and would never endorse a sport that could lead to children and grown men having life-threatening brain injuries, perhaps you’d consider buying this horse we’re selling over here.
Like most corporations, the NFL cares about sustaining its existence and profiting. As this “SB Nation” article points out, the league spent so long denying the existence of CTE that a court ruled in favor of the settlement simply in hopes of providing relief to the thousands of men suffering from major health problems related to their football careers. The court had major issues with certain parts of the settlement but felt it would take too long to work them out if it denied the agreement.
Think about this next time your child asks you if he or she can play Pop Warner football.
Moms Sue Pop Warner
Glenn “Pop” Warner was such a profound advocate for the game of football that America’s youth league was named after him in 1933. We have no doubt that a man who respected and loved the game so much would be appalled to find out that kids are still playing it even though it presents major risks to their health.
Two mothers certainly are. In 2016, Jo Cornell and Kimberly Archie filed a lawsuit against Pop Warner over the deaths of each of their sons. Tyler Cornell died by suicide at 25 years old, and Paul Bright Jr. was killed at 24 after ramming his motorcycle at 60 mph into a car on a city street, according to "The San Diego Union-Tribune."
Independent of each other, both mothers had sent their sons’ brains to Boston University’s CTE Center, and both were found to have the disease. The two even co-authored a book warning parents of the dangers of tackle football. “Every parent in America needs to know that they’re playing Russian roulette with their kid’s brain,” Archie told the “Union-Tribune.” “If they’re letting their kid play Pop Warner, they are knowingly taking the risk.”
Unfortunately, the case was dismissed in late 2019, with the federal court judge saying there wasn't enough proof to link the head trauma from youth football to their sons' deaths. (Just a side note: Pop Warner allows 5-year-olds to play tackle football.)
This Isn’t About ‘Nanny State’ Causes
In 2018, the editorial boards of two major daily newspapers — the "Los Angeles Times" and "The Mercury News" — called for banning youth tackle football.
“The Times” wrote: “This isn’t to advocate for some sort of ‘nanny state’ overreach into decisions that one would hope parents would make on their own. And many are — youth participation in tackle football has been dropping for years. But the government does have a role to play in securing the safety of minors and in preserving the broader public health.”
The Mercury wrote: “California sports advocates can no longer ignore this grim reality: Tackle football puts young children at risk of permanent brain damage. Safer alternatives, including flag football, exist. It’s time that California did away with the high-impact sport for kids until they reach high school. A good case can even be made that tackle football should be banned at all public schools.”
Both editorials also cited the legislative efforts of several states that, at the time, were actively pursuing limitations on youth football.
States Attempt to Restrict Youth Football
De Caro and Kaplen, a leading brain injury law firm, has been tracking state attempts to age-restrict football. It’s the only firm in the nation whose partners have both served as chairs of the prestigious Traumatic Brain Injury Litigation Group of the American Association for Justice. There are six states — California, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Massachusetts — that have so far put forth legislative efforts without a ton of progress (apart from some regulations in California).
There is no definitive answer on when a brain is ready to take the pounding of football repeatedly, but an Annals of Neurology study shows that CTE symptoms show up earlier in kids who play tackle football before age 12. The state bans would have only applied to kids 12 and younger (or in some cases 14 and younger), so what happened exactly? Why did the efforts fail?
The combined populations of those states are more than 87 million, indicating that the fallout would be profound for America’s football institutions. And despite the fact that each is a “blue state,” children’s safety is quite simply not a political issue. It is, however, an issue for a certain multibillion-dollar industry and the mechanisms that feed it.
Don’t Challenge the Machine
FamilyMinded spoke with Michael Kaplen of De Caro and Kaplen to get some insight into the failed state bans. He acknowledged that the passion and popularity of football would inevitably make its biggest stakeholders fearful of a diminished product or the lessened value of one that fully acknowledged its inherent head trauma dangers.
“The NFL and other organizations have launched an effective publicity campaign to convince public officials, educators and parents that football can be made safe,” Kaplen says. “This is based on distortion and misinformation designed to deceive those concerned with the health and safety of children who engage in tackle football.”
Haven’t we been down this road before?
“It is a similar course of conduct to that of Big Tobacco and their promotion of low-tar and nicotine cigarettes,” Kaplen continues. “Football is a concussion delivery system. Football can never be made safe.”
Will States Continue the Fight?
It’s sad that legislative efforts went nowhere, but there’s a chance we’ve not seen the last of state leaders nationwide stepping up for children’s safety. “Hopefully, over time, as more medical evidence develops and is released and disseminated to the public about the dangers of repetitive head trauma, states will continue to re-examine this issue and move toward banning youth tackle football,” Kaplen says.
That would be exponentially easier if the NFL and youth football organizations like Pop Warner and USA Football took the science more seriously. For its part, USA Football rolled out a small pilot program in 2017 that made some safety improvements, although "The New York Times" reported that its previous effort to reduce head contact among players was a bust. USA Football receives millions in funding from the NFL, according to "USA Today."
“The National Football League is regarded by parents, coaches and educators as the guardian of football and its players,” Kaplen says. “Professional players are heroes and role models for children across the county. The [NFL] through its promotion of football has an ethical obligation to our nation’s youth to disclose the information that it possesses to protect their health and safety.
“The NFL must … enthusiastically promote flag football and other programs that restrict and reduce repetitive head trauma.”
Giving Up the Dream to Stay Alive
If you were a promising young athlete with the chance to make millions of dollars before your 40th birthday, what could possibly stop you from doing so? Chris Borland was 24 years old when he retired after one season in the NFL. According to ESPN, Borland “made his decision after consulting with family members, concussion researchers, friends and current and former teammates, as well as studying what is known about the relationship between football and neurodegenerative disease.”
Borland also told ESPN that, despite a successful rookie season, the decision to retire was clear. “I’ve thought about what I could accomplish in football, but for me, personally, when you read about Mike Webster and Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling, you read all these stories, and to be the type of player I want to be in football, I think I'd have to take on some risks that, as a person, I don't want to take on.”
And in 2018, Borland spoke with "USA Today" about youth football. “I’m somewhat incredulous that we even discuss the reasonability of hitting a 5-year-old in the head hundreds of times. It baffles me. I think you can wait to play [tackle football].”
Brain Injury Heroes
The three players Chris Borland mentioned upon his retirement — Mike Webster, Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling — are true football heroes, and not because of anything they did on the field.
Webster’s family allowed Dr. Bennet Omalu to examine his brain, which led to the discovery of CTE. The tragic story of Dave Duerson’s suicide in 2011 helped bring more attention to football head injuries because he requested his brain be studied postmortem, which eventually led to his diagnosis of having had CTE. And Ray Easterling was diagnosed with CTE after dying by suicide in 2012.
Another great whose story of suicide and CTE rocked the establishment was Junior Seau. He too died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, but made sure to preserve his brain so it could be studied after his death. And, not surprisingly, he also was found to have CTE.
Alternatives to Football for Your Kids
Looking to steer your children clear of tackle football? It’s a tough decision, but it doesn’t mean they cannot play other sports and thus have the benefit that sports impart on developing minds — lifelong physical fitness, self-esteem, social skills and academic success, among other pluses.
But if it must involve an egg-shaped ball, how about one of tackle football’s cousins? Flag football is a non-contact approach to football that has almost everything else in common. And there’s ultimate football, which is like ultimate Frisbee in that the person with the ball must be stationary and can only pivot in order to throw the ball forward to another teammate, trying to advance to the end zone and score.
And there are, of course, plenty of other non-contact sports that have nothing to do with football. Perhaps, in the interest of raising responsible, healthy children, we can all give those a try instead.