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 Fans
Sports Forum Podcast
Episode #28 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: A Chat With Mano Watsa, a Leading Basketball and Life Educator – Watsa is President of PGC Basketball, the largest education basketball camp in the world, with over 150 camps in 30+ U.S. states and Canada. We discuss problems in youth sports today, including single sport specialization, the growing gap between the “haves” and “have-nots,” the high drop-out rate in competitive sports, and the growing mental health challenges young athletes are dealing with today.
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Episode #27 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Kids’ Sports: How We Can Take Back the Game and Restore Quality Family Time In the Process – Linda Flanagan is author of “Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania Are Ruining Kids’ Sports and Why It Matters.” We discuss how commercialized and professionalized youth sports are hurting kids and their families.
Episode #26 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: How Can We Fix Youth Sports? – John O’Sullivan is Founder and CEO of Changing the Game Project and author of “Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports Back to Our Kids.”
Episode #25 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Physical Education Should Be a Critical Component of K-12 School Design – Michael Horn is co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation.
Episode #24 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Mental Health and Athletes: Ending the Stigma – Nathan Braaten and Taylor Ricci are the founders of Dam Worth It, a non-profit created to end the stigma around mental health at colleges and universities through sport, storytelling, and community creation.
Episode #23 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Olympian Benita Fitzgerald Mosley Talks Title IX, Youth Sports and the Olympics.
Media"How We Can Save Sports" author Ken Reed appears on Fox & Friends to explain how there's "too much adult in youth sports."
Ken Reed appears on Mornings with Gail from KFKA Radio in Colorado to discuss bad parenting in youth athletics.
“Should College Athletes Be Paid?” Ken Reed on The Morning Show from Wisconsin Public Radio
Ken Reed appears on KGNU Community Radio in Colorado (at 02:30) to discuss equality in sports and Title IX.
Ken Reed appears on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour (at 38:35) to discuss his book The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place, and to talk about some current sports issues.
- League of Fans Sports Policy Director Ken Reed quoted in Washington Post column titled "What happened to P.E.? It’s losing ground in our push for academic improvement," by Jay Mathews
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.
Vanderbilt Sport & Society - On The Ball with Andrew Maraniss with guest Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director for League of Fans and author of How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
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