As the sports-loving part of the population looks forward to the National Football League’s annual Super Bowl on Sunday, legislatures in New York and Illinois are zeroing in on a different aspect of the nation’s most popular sport: brain injuries among young players. Lawmakers in both states have introduced measures that would ban tackle football for children under age 12. Making kids wait longer to don pads and helmets is not a bad idea, nor would it be a bad choice to extend such limits to other sports, such as hockey, lacrosse and boxing, where children as young as 8 strap on gloves and protective gear and punch each other in the head.
Anyone who endures hits to the head — even those that don’t result in concussions — can suffer irreversible brain damage, in some cases after only one impact, new research has found. Children, whose brains and bodies are still developing, are even more vulnerable. Yes, football players wear helmets, but experts say such equipment does little to stop the brain from moving inside the skull as a result of a hard hit. While much more study needs to be done, the evidence at the moment suggests that the potential damage to young athletes is significant enough to warrant a serious response.
And there have been tragic results. The scope of the problem among professional football players, most of whom began in youth leagues, is significant. Hundreds of former players suffer from symptoms consistent with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which leads to dementia and other cognitive disabilities but so far can be diagnosed only during an autopsy. A study last year by the CTE Center at Boston University found that all but one of 111 brains donated by the families of dead former professional players had developed CTE. It was an admittedly skewed sample, but the results confirmed the families’ suspicions that the behavioral changes, memory losses and other signs of brain deterioration they had witnessed arose from brain damage.
Yes, those were professional players who engaged in repeated and high levels of violent contact. But the same study found similar damage among the brains of players who quit football after high school. The mothers of two former Southern California high school players are suing Pop Warner football, whose leagues begin at age 5, arguing that it failed to ensure their sons’ safety as young players. One son underwent treatment for severe anxiety and depression after graduating, and the other exhibited erratic and impulsive behaviors. The first eventually shot himself; the second died as he sped on a motorcycle down a Los Angeles street. The Boston lab found that both young men had CTE.
Some of the former professional players’ stories are equally tragic, such as the suicides of former stars Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, each of whom shot himself in the chest so as to preserve his brain for post-mortem study. There will be more brain damage to come. In fact, 126 players were listed in mid-week NFL injury reports this season as having suffered a concussion — and that’s only a partial count of all those who suffered significant head impacts. Some former NFL players, who are the closest witnesses to the damage wrought by violent collisions on the field, say they either would not let their children play tackle football or would make them wait until high school. When people who have made careers in the sport look askance at youth involvement, other parents — and sports program directors — ought to take heed.
This isn’t to advocate for some sort of “nanny state” overreach into decisions that one would hope parents would make on their own. And many are — youth participation in tackle football has been dropping for years. But the government does have a role to play in securing the safety of minors and in preserving the broader public health. It’s becoming increasingly clear that exposing children to repetitive head hits can lead to significantly compromised cognitive abilities later in life, with impacts on, among other things, the demand for healthcare, the incidence of domestic violence and the stability of families.
It’s not too much to seek protections for those at risk, especially since the activity at issue is sport. Athletics play a significant role in daily life, whether you’re a fan, a recreational player or a professional in a billion-dollar business. But we shouldn’t knowingly sacrifice the lives and well-being of children in its service. If youth programs don’t significantly limit exposure to such dangers among their child athletes, then government should step in.