By Ken Reed

At one time, we thought nothing of children and teenagers smoking cigarettes. Of course, that seems unthinkable today.

Similarly, I believe a generation from now, we’ll look back and find it unthinkable that we allowed children and teenagers to absorb hundreds of blows to the head (read: brain) every year playing tackle football.

The science is well-established now: Football is hazardous to the human brain. Yet, 2.5 million American children between the ages of 5 and 13 continue to play tackle football. Another 1.1 million teenagers are playing high school football.

I grant you, football is a great game to watch. And millions of young people love to play it. Moreover, the game can certainly have positive outcomes in terms of teaching valuable life skills and creating a lifelong appreciation for physical conditioning, among other things. But given the very real dangers to the brain, are the risks worth it, especially when the same life skills and appreciation for the importance of physical fitness can be learned from other sports, sports that are much safer for the brain? (Note: It’s not solely football we need to be concerned about as a sports-loving public. Soccer with heading and hockey with checking and fighting, and of course, boxing are also problematic. But soccer and hockey can be modified — by removing heading, checking and fighting — and still resemble the same game. Taking the brain out of boxing is impossible, and nearly so in tackle football.)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the only known risk factor for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is contact sports, most notably football. A Boston University study found that CTE risk more than doubles after just three years of playing football.

“While we don’t yet know the absolute risk of developing CTE among American football players, we now can quantify that each year of play increases the odds of developing CTE by 30 percent,” says the BU study’s lead author Jesse Mez, director of BU’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center Clinical Core, and a researcher at BU’s CTE Center.

“We hope that these findings will guide players, family members, and physicians in making informed decisions regarding play.”

Personally, I’d like all football players, including college and pro players, to have all the information we have about the dangers of playing football before making a decision on whether to participate in the game or not. But, like Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player and Co-Founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, I’m particularly interested in making sure youth and high school players — and their parents — have this information before deciding whether or not football is right for them.

“As a neuroscientist and a former college football player, I’m most concerned with the two-thirds of American tackle football players who are children and particularly susceptible to harm,” says Nowinski.

“The brain changes tremendously on the journey from birth to adulthood. Any form of trauma can change the brain, and thus change the child.”

Recently, we lost one of the all-time great football players, Gale Sayers, who died of complications of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Dementia and Alzheimer’s rates are significantly higher for former football players relative to the general population. Sayers’ family believes football was a key factor in the cognitive problems Sayers dealt with for many years before his passing.

“Like the doctor at the Mayo Clinic said, ‘Yes, a part of this has to be on football,’” Ardythe Sayers, Gale’s wife, told the Associated Press.

Nowinski believes that eventually we’ll look back and be horrified that we allowed young children to be exposed to the kind brain trauma that’s inherent in the game of football.

“The science is clearer than ever: Exposure data shows children as young as 9 are getting hit in the head more than 500 times in one season of youth tackle football,” says Nowinski.

”That should not feel normal to us. Think of the last time, outside of sports, you allowed your child to get hit hard in the head 25 times in a day.”

Outside of sports, allowing your kid to get hit in the head 25 times in a day would be grounds for child abuse charges. But because we love football so much in this country, we continue to practice a collective form of avoidance behavior when it comes to the evidence regarding football and brain injuries.

At some point, that collective avoidance behavior will end. For the sake of the brain health of millions of young people in our country, let’s hope that’s sooner than later.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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