California sports advocates can no longer ignore this grim reality: Tackle football puts young children at risk of permanent brain damage.
Safer alternatives, including flag football, exist. It’s time that California did away with the high-impact sport for kids until they reach high school. A good case can even be made that tackle football should be banned at all public schools.
Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, and Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, D-San Diego, acknowledge the risk. They have introduced the Safe Youth Football Act, which would outlaw 7,500 California youth from playing Pop Warner football.
Pop Warner officials argue that youth football is safer than soccer, noting that youth football has 12 percent fewer injuries per capita among 5-15 year olds. But that’s not the issue. The concern is the long-term brain damage caused by repetitive tackling, hitting and blocking.
Every parent of a child playing or thinking about playing football should read two separate Boston University studies released in the last 15 months.
The first, conducted by researchers at the university’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center, showed that “participation in youth football before age 12 increased the risk of problems with behavior regulation, apathy and executive functioning by two-fold and increased the risk of clinically elevated depression scores by three-fold.”
The researchers studied former football players, some of whom played only through high school and others who played only through college. Their average age was 51. The results showed greater later-life emotional and behavior impairment from those who started playing before the age of 12 than those who started playing at age 12 or later. It builds on a previous study showing players who had started tackle football before age 12 had worse memory and mental flexibility, as well.
The second study is equally alarming. Researchers writing for the Jan. 18 issue of the neurology journal Brain revealed further evidence showing the onset of CTE is caused by repeated hits to the head, rather than concussions. It explains why 20 percent of football players who had never experienced a known concussion were found to have serious CTE issues.
The researchers spent seven years studying the brains of youth who had died at a young age. They concluded that as dangerous as concussions can be, the number of hits young players sustain is even more concerning.
“We have an obligation to protect children from dangerous, long-term injuries resulting from tackle football, especially brain trauma,” said Assemblyman McCarty.
The 2015 film “Concussion,” starring Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, made famous doctors concerns that CTE disease leads to dementia and brain cell death. NFL player data has revealed that 30 percent of former professional football players will develop Alzheimer’s or dementia during their lifetime.
Scientists should continue their studies to fully establish the risks of the game. But everything researchers have discovered to date clearly shows that children under the age of 12 have no business playing tackle football.
—The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)