Being parents who are also athletic trainers has its pros and cons. We can skip a trip to the doctor’s office for most musculoskeletal injuries. We can do our own physical therapy. We can discern whether an injury needs further evaluation or if our son just needs to rub some dirt on it. Unfortunately, it also means we understand the inherent risks of playing a particular sport. As a parent and athletic trainer, I just cannot allow my son to play tackle football.
From the peewees to the pros, football exacts a toll on the body. Injuries are always part of the game. We expect sore muscles, broken bones, and torn ligaments, and these injuries can be repaired. We do so much to keep our kids healthy, and yet we put a helmet on them and tell them to go play hard! And this is after years’ worth of studies on the dangers of head injuries.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated contact. (Note that I said repeated contact, not repeated concussions.) The brain sits in the skull and is surrounded by fluid. With sudden accelerations and decelerations, the brain bounces around inside the skull and can be damaged. Brain cells stretch, twist, and undergo chemical changes. After a single injury, the cells’ default response is to clean up toxic proteins and chemicals. But when the head is hit repeatedly, that recovery sequence becomes overwhelmed. One consequence is a buildup of tau proteins, which are abundant in nervous tissue. Over time, the proteins clump together and eventually choke brain cells to death. This can propagate to other cells, leading to CTE.
A 2017 study authored by Julie Stamm, Ph.D., in Translational Psychiatry found that people who started playing tackle football before age 12 doubled their risk of having behavioral problems and cognitive impairment and tripled their risk of suffering from depression later in life. In a 2017 study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, Ann McKee, MD, an expert on CTE, analyzed the donated brains of 202 football players and found CTE in 88% of them. CTE at the high school level was 21%. While that number is lower than the college level (91%) or in the pros (99%), it’s still a one-in-five chance of brain damage at the high school level.
In my state of Illinois, lawmakers recently passed The CTE Prevention Act, which bans tackle football under 12 years of age. New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and California recently proposed similar legislation that would prohibit tackling under the ages of 12, 13, and 14. I am certain more states will follow suit. In my town, kids have turned to playing flag football, which has become very popular.
Our 6-year-old son is obsessed with football and wants to play. Unfortunately, the studies coming out surrounding CTE are concerning, to say the least. The latest research reveals how dangerous football is for kids, whose brains are being damaged even without suffering from concussions. So what about you? Are you going to let your kid play tackle football?