Tackle Football is not for Children — Good Parenting

 

ThinkstockPhotos 144324835Dear Dr. Debbie,

Our extended family includes many football fans. I found myself in the minority recently when the question was raised about the age a child should be before playing on a team. One side claims that any team sport in elementary school builds self-discipline and responsibility and supports physical health. The other side (mine) says the dangers of head injuries in football are too great, especially younger than high school. The oldest child in this family is 10-years-old.

In The Huddle

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Dear Huddler,

Head injuries are a serious concern for young athletes for several reasons. A jolt to the head is more dangerous for a child than for an adult due to the relatively larger heads of children in proportion to their height. A child also has weaker neck muscles than an adult has. Considering that the brain is the most important part of the body, and continues to develop through puberty and beyond, experts are concerned that normal neurological development may be jeopardized with tackle football.

Brain Trauma in NFL Players
Research published in the Journal of Neurotrauma (November 2015), looked at professional football players who were either under the age of twelve, or were twelve or older when they started playing. Those who were younger when they began playing on a team later had more problems, mostly years and years later, with thinking and memory, personality changes, and behavioral changes including aggression and depression.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) has been recently associated with dementia and early death of more than a few professional football players. While it has long been known that the sport of boxing poses a great risk for CTE, Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at Boston University  was able to study the brains of more than 20 National Football League players after their deaths. She discovered that almost all of them had CTE.

Research on Children’s Brains
With modern brain imaging technology, brain changes can be seen more immediately. Christopher Whitlow, chief of neuroradiology at Wake Forest School of Medicine  studied male football players between ages 8 and 13 over the course of a season to see how head impact affects developing brains. He used brain imagery before and after the season and used a Head Impact Telemetry System imbedded in the players’ helmets to measure force. To be sure the boys weren’t just dropping their helmets in the locker room, the “head impact data” was correlated with videos of the boys’ games and practices. The brain scans showed a significant relationship between head impact and changes in neural networks - the white matter of the brain. Whitlow’s concern is whether this implies a temporary or more long lasting interference with the transmission of signals from one brain cell to another.

Proposals for a Legal Age
Washington State was the leader in adopting a minimum age, rather than body weight, for young tackle football players. Other states have since adopted rules regarding taking players out of a game and returning them to play as well as training coaches to spot symptoms of traumatic brain injury. Currently both Illinois and New York are considering legislation concerning a minimum age for tackle football.

To be sure, there are many, many ways to instill discipline, responsibility and habits of physical health in our children without posing the risk of brain injury.

Dr. Debbie

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