By Ken Reed
“There’s something to the play of football that damages the brain,” says Dr. Ann McKee, a Boston University neuropathologist and the world’s preeminent expert on CTE. “That, to me, is irrefutable.”
Andrew Lawrence has written a comprehensive feature article in Men’s Health on the dangers of football for kids with still developing brains (actually, brains aren’t fully developed until the early 20’s). He goes over a lot of the most recent research linking football and brain injuries.
One of the key takeaways is that the problem isn’t just concussions. Repetitive sub-concussive blows to the head (or even to the chest, resulting in a whiplash effect on the brain inside the skull) can cause brain damage.
“It’s concussion this, concussion that,” says Dr. Robert Stern. “With the focus on concussions, it takes everyone in a different direction from what the real problem is.”
Stern, a professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Boston University, says the biggest problem isn’t concussions but subconcussive hits, the repetitive blows to the head that take place in every football game. Those blows usually aren’t bad enough to send players out of the game, but according to Stern, in some players, repetitive subconcussive hits can lead to changes in the brain’s structural integrity. And that makes CTE a real risk factor for players long before they reach the NFL.
“After a single injury, the cells’ default response is to clean up toxic proteins and chemicals. But when the head is hit time and again, that recovery sequence becomes overwhelmed. One consequence is a buildup of tau, an abnormal protein that clumps together and creates tangles that eventually choke brain cells to death. It can also spread to other cells and propagate, leading to CTE.”
Yet, there are still three million boys playing football in the United States, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. That number has dropped considerably from the nearly 4 million boys that were playing nine years ago before the concussion crisis. The drop-off has been primarily attributed to fears over concussions and CTE. As more and more parents become aware that repetitive subconcussive hits can be just as big of a problem as concussions, the number of boys playing football will likely drop some more.
Wake Forest researchers followed 25 boys ages 8 through 13 over a season of tackle football. They placed sensors inside the players’ helmets to measure impacts. Players accumulated between 250 to 580 “crashes” during the season. The MRIs of the kids’ brains taken before and after the season showed that those “who experienced more cumulative head impact exposure had more changes in brain white matter.” The stunning part is not one player had suffered a concussion. Brain damage had occurred without any concussions in the group. And the players and the parents weren’t even aware of it. An older Purdue University study had similar results.
“Just the routine hits changed the brain,” says Stern. “That’s what parents need to hear.”
According to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 53 percent of mothers polled said they would steer their kids away from playing football due to concerns about concussions. That’s a jump of 13 percent over 2014 poll data.
So, more parents are definitely becoming concerned about the dangers of youth and high school football. Fewer kids are playing the game. But a ton of young kids will still sign up for football again this fall.
What will finally tip the scales enough for a large number of parents to say enough is enough?
Lawrence writes that eventually there was enough evidence on smoking and other public health dangers that public opinion and behavior changed on a large scale.
Given the already huge mound of research showing that football is dangerous to the human brain — especially at young ages — I wonder how much more will be needed until we reach the tipping point?
— Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of FansPrint
- League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.