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Youth Football: Is It Worth the Risk?

NFL great Kurt Warner recently took some heat for saying he would prefer his kids not play the sport that made him famous. Tom Brady’s father said if he had to make the decision today, he would be “very hesitant” to let his son play football. We’re becoming more aware of the sad reality of the effects of multiple concussions in football players. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that “young athletes are more susceptible to the risks of concussion because their brains are still developing.”

Retired football player Junior Seau committed suicide earlier this month, at the age of 43, leaving behind three children aged 12 to 19.

All this begs the questions: should kids be playing football?

When scientists asked Katherine Brearley if they could examine her dead son’s brain for evidence of concussions, the football player’s mom didn’t think they’d find anything. Her son, Owen Thomas, had played football through high school and for the University of Pennsylvania before killing himself during his senior year at age 21. To Ms. Brearley’s knowledge, Owen had never sustained a concussion.

The grieving mom was “astounded” that researchers even asked, Ms. Brearley told ABC News, but the grieving mom agreed anyway.

Despite suffering no obvious concussions during his football career, the rising football star did indeed have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. CTE, discovered only about a decade ago in the brains of former football players, is a degenerative disease linked to symptoms like dementia, erratic behavior, and suicide. The small number of doctors who study CTE have diagnosed it in dozens of now-dead NFL players.

CTE may also be seen in players of other contact sports like ice hockey and wrestling, as well as in military personnel who have been exposed to blast and concussive injuries. Symptoms can develop months or even decades after the trauma.

We don’t know yet if CTE played a role in the suicide of retired NFL star Junior Seau. What we do know is that everyone from the American Academy of Pediatrics to famous football players’ parents are weighing in on the risks of playing both youth and professional football.

In an impassioned and eloquent blog post, Kurt Warner wrote that while he loves football “and all the things that it taught me and afforded me along the way…I have a responsibility to my kids. I cannot be oblivious to the risks of the game of football simply because it was good to me.”

Other professional football players accused Mr. Warner of throwing the NFL “under the bus.” The thing is, Mr. Warner is pretty knowledgeable about this topic. One of Mr. Warner’s sons was left blinded and brain-damaged after sustaining a traumatic brain injury as an infant, and he is a prominent advocate for those with developmental disabilities. Even without those facts in play, I think his critics should shut the hell up about his desire to protect the brains of the the rest of his kids.

Responding to those who criticized Mr. Warner, Tom Brady, Sr., the dad of quarterback Tom Brady, said he agreed with Mr. Warner completely. Mr. Brady, Sr. said he kept his son out of football until he was in high school.

Before the tragedy: Junior Seau, 43, is survived by ex-wife Gina and their three children, Sydney, 19; Jake, 17; and Hunter, 12, shown here in happier times.

“Tommy did not play football until he was 14, because we didn’t think he was physically developed enough to play the sport,” Mr. Brady, Sr. said. “It’s the same reason I wouldn’t let him throw a curveball until that age. I told him, ‘If I see you throw a curve, I will pull you right off this field,’ and he knew I meant it.”

The elder Brady believes “any responsible parent should be reacting to the growing research linking head trauma and degenerative brain conditions with gravity and concern,” reported Yahoo Sports.

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines on youth sports and concussions note:

  • Children or adolescents who sustain a concussion should always be evaluated by a physician and receive medical clearance before returning to play.
  • After a concussion, all athletes should be restricted from physical activity until they are asymptomatic at rest and with exertion. Physical and cognitive exertion, such as homework, playing video games, using a computer or watching TV, may worsen symptoms.
  • Symptoms of a concussion usually resolve in 7 to 10 days, but some athletes may take weeks or months to fully recover.
  • Neuropsychological testing can provide objective data to athletes and their families, but testing is just one step in the complete management of a sport-related concussion.
  • There is no evidence proving the safety or efficacy of any medication in the treatment of a concussion.
  • Retirement from contact sports should be considered for an athlete who has sustained multiple concussions, or who has suffered post-concussive symptoms for more than three months.

I should note that those guidelines are from August of 2010. Since then, we have seen the suicides of UPenn’s Owen Thomas; professional football players Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling, and Junior Seau; and hockey players Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, Wade Belak, and Bob Probert. And that’s just since 2010.

A more recent study, published in the journal Pediatrics in 2011,  shows that pediatric sports-related concussions alter the bloodflow to the brain for more than a month after the concussion is sustained.

I get that football is an American tradition, and that kids learn all kinds of great things from playing it. However, I’m pretty sure they could learn those same things playing a less contact-heavy sport like soccer. As a culture, we seem to celebrate the “manliness” of sports in which players get the crap pounded out of them: boxing, football, ice hockey. I grew up watching my friends play high school and youth football for coaches that constantly told them to “man up,” “walk it off,” and play injured.

I’m not saying that kids should never play football, but Tom Brady is certainly proof that you don’t necessarily need to play as a young kid to be great later. Our son is only 6, but before we’d make a decision to let him play football, we’d take a very serious look at the program. What kind of training does the coach have? How seriously does the coach (and athletic trainer, if applicable) take injuries? If your school doesn’t have computerized neurocognitive testing to assess post-concussive damage, is it available from a local physician?

The AAP says that athletes who have sustained “multiple” concussions should be retired from the sport. Are you prepared to “retire” your child from a sport? And given that Owen Thomas’ mom said he had never actually sustained a concussion, how many tackles is too many? And if we’re asking questions like that, is it even worth the risk in the first place?

(Photo Credits: iStockphoto, International Business Times)

Read more from Joslyn at her blog stark. raving. mad. mommy. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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