By Ken Reed

Today’s July 1. July is the month that a lot of high school preseason football camps take place. It’s also the month when youth football organizations like Pop Warner start their marketing campaigns to get kids to sign up for tackle football leagues that begin in August. Therefore, July is also the month that moms and dads around the country often have to answer the question, “Am I going to let my son play football this year?”

That’s a question that could be asked about other sports that have a relatively high concussion rate as well, including hockey and girls soccer. However, let’s start with football because it represents the biggest challenge when it comes to concussions.

Football has by far the highest concussion rate of all youth and high school sports. Of note, high school football players are nearly twice as likely to get concussions as college football players, according to Institute of Medicine research. In fact, according to the Brain Injury Research Institute, in any given season, 20 percent of high school football players sustain brain injuries.

There are 1.3 million high school and 2.8 million youth football players in this country (compared to 1,700 players in the NFL). The vast majority of high school and youth football games are played without medical personnel on the sidelines. It’s sobering to note that only 42% of high schools in the United States have athletic trainers and those trainers obviously can’t attend all of a given school’s athletic events or practices.

This leads to some dangerous situations. According to a recent study by the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, 40.5% of high school athletes who have suffered concussions return to action prematurely, risking more severe problems, including death from Second Impact Syndrome.

And concussions aren’t the only problem when it comes to sports and young brains.

Purdue researchers compared changes in the brains of high school football players who had suffered concussions with the brains of players who were concussion free. They found brain tissue damage in both. That’s scary stuff. That means brain injuries are occurring without concussions and without players, coaches or parents being aware of it.

It’s important to note that it’s not just football and male athletes we need to be concerned about. Girls soccer is second to football in terms of the number of concussions in youth and high school sports.

A study conducted at Humboldt State University in California, revealed that both female and male soccer players who headed the ball the most during a game did worse on cognitive tests after the game than their peers who hadn’t headed a ball. Moreover, the players that did the most heading also suffered more often from headaches and episodes of dizziness compared to players that headed the ball less often.

Another study by Harvard researchers compared the brains of soccer players to those of swimmers. They found changes in the white matter of soccer players’ brains that weren’t there in the brains of swimmers.

An important fact we have to face and deal with is that the brains of youth and high school athletes are still developing, making them more vulnerable to brain injuries. As such, Dr. Robert Cantu, a neurosurgeon and leading expert on sports concussions, recommends that kids don’t play tackle football before age 14. He also recommends banning heading in soccer and body checking in ice hockey before 14.

“And I have absolutely no problem with parents who want to hold a child out for longer, say 16 or 18,” says Cantu.

When it comes to concussions in sports, we can’t put the growing mound of medical research we’re now aware of back in the bottle.

For our kids’ sake, we can’t afford to avoid some tough questions when it comes to youth sports and brain trauma, including this one: Given what we know, do we really want to put our children in a sport in which they are hitting their head on a regular basis?

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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