My Child Will Not Play Tackle Football

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?

7 thoughts on “My Child Will Not Play Tackle Football

    1. Joshua Stone Post author

      Thank you, Tommy. It has been too long. My blog took a back seat when the cancer battle started. I have to keep blogging as it keeps my mind fresh.

      Reply
  1. Richard

    I’m really hoping my grandsons find other sports to enjoy and actively participate in . Perhaps soccer’s rising popularity in the US could be traced to parent’s concern about CTE? However, recently watching the World Cup and the amount of contact and “headers” makes me wonder if we’ll be looking at the same thing in a few more years? As you point out, it’s not the concussions, but the constant movement of the brain in our skulls. Are soccer players being studied as well?

    Great to hear from you and read your blog again Josh.

    Reply
  2. susan l outlaw

    I was VERY relieved when our son decided, after a hard summer of football practice, NOT to play football in high school. We asked him why he did all that hard work all summer and then walked away from the sport and his answer was “I don’t want to get hurt” — smart kid! Now he’s a dad and he and his wife absolutely agree that our grandson will NOT play tackle football. Ever!

    Reply
  3. Lori

    Sadly, I have a life long friend who played FB from elementary to college. He just had to move home with his father at the age of 45 because his brain is in such bad shape.

    Reply
  4. Duane Korthuis MS AT/L, ATC

    I can respect your position on the dangers of football. However, I feel that football can be played safely when taught properly. The benefits of football to a boy far outweigh the risks. Boys are different than girls, and need different outlets for their emotions in my (and most psychologists’) opinion. While violence is not acceptable, learning to manage aggressive emotions is beneficial.

    Secondly, the “scientist” part of my mind always raises a red flag whenever someone uses the study where 88% of the brains studied had CTE. That’s horrible science since the only brains donated were ones who had symptoms of CTE prior to their death. I don’t doubt that football raises the risk for CTE but to quote that study is poor use of statistics.

    I will always love football and know most Athletic Trainers do. There is a fine line between safety and fear. I’ve never witnessed many good decisions made in response to fear. The only way to stay 100% safe is to stay off the roads and perhaps never eat a French fry, but I’d be missing out on a lot of living in the process.

    I know the potential price that can be paid because I have a close family member with a TBI. I’m sympathetic to families who walk that difficult road daily. Even so, the benefits outweigh the risk.

    Reply

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