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Youth Football: Is It Worth the Risk?

By joslyngray |

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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About joslyngray



Joslyn Gray is the mother of four children with a variety of challenges ranging from allergies to ADHD to Asperger Syndrome. She writes candidly and comedically about this and her generally hectic life on her light-hearted personal blog, stark. raving. mad. mommy.. Read bio and latest posts → Read joslyngray's latest posts →

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9 thoughts on “Youth Football: Is It Worth the Risk?

  1. Mark says:

    Well said. Moms have always been against contact sports but when you have dads like Kurt Warner and former Giants great Harry Carson being publicly negative on their kids playing football, you know the writing is on the wall.

  2. DRo says:

    No of course it’s not worth the risk, given that there are so many other sports to choose from. Why anyone would even consider this is beyond me.

  3. Jim Schmitt says:

    It’s a fair question. I’m glad that I don’t have to address it any longer. My son played 3 seasons of HS football. I played 6 years of youth football. In my opinion, we’re not going ever satisfactorily remove the risk from the sport. Having stated that, technology, rules, and culture-change can drastically reduce the risk. It’s my understanding that there are better helmets already on the market, and we can improve them. We can also change the rules of the game to drastically penalize helmet hits, and intentional helmet hits. This could change the culture of the game. As for Kurt Warner and his detractors, you must always consider the source. It has been my observation that Kurt is intelligent, thoughtful, humble, honest, and truly appreciative of all that football has brought him. His detractors? Actually, there have been two. Amani Toomer of NFL Network and Merrill Hoge of ESPN. Toomer has suffered his own backlash for his comments. As for Hoge, he is my least favorite analyst on ESPN’s coverage of the NFL. He seldom tells me anything of value. The irony for me regarding Hoge’s rant about Warner is twofold. 1. He sued the Chicago Bears team doctor and won a $1.5mil judgement. His charge? The doctor failed to inform Hoge about the dangers of multiple concussions, which prematurely ended his career. 2. As the subject of a news report, Hoge was the Poster Boy for the damaging effects of concussions. During an interview, he constantly lost focus, cried out of frustration, slurred his words… It was truly depressing to watch. To rail against someone for honestly sharing their opinion makes Toomer and Hoge nothing but shills for the NFL. Always consider the source.

  4. Linda, T.O.O. says:

    In my daughter’s derby league, a concussion means a mandatory 6 weeks off to heal. No way in hell would I return my kid to any contact sport in 7-10 days when they are “asymptomatic.”

  5. CF says:

    A big issue is the parents (usually fathers) who put pressure on their sons to excel and live vicariously through those boys. To see Kurt Warner and Tom Brady Sr step up and say that Super Bowl rings aren’t worth it can go a long way to minimize the number of boys playing these full-contact sports. At the least, there should be no full contact football (pee wee, pop warner, etc) until high school. Pads and helmets offer a false protection to these kids who hit harder thinking the helmet will keep them from getting hurt.

    I’m surprised that only football and hockey are mentioned here. I’d love to see this article and issue expanding to ALL youth sports. My nephew has wrestled since he was 8 years old and my brother was very proactive in making it clear that there would never be any “cutting” for weight. The coach also had a son the same age, and that son was 9 years old starving himself to make weight. At the regional championships, my nephew was 2 lbs overweight and the coach layered him in sweat pants and sweatshirts and made him run laps for 30 minutes with no water to cut weight (unsuccessfully, as my nephew was 4 oz over still). My brother was not present at the early morning weigh-in but when he arrived and found out what happened, he was so incredibly angry. That coach is no longer allowed near the team, and if his son chooses to continue on the team, he still is not allowed near the site of competition.

    Every sport has its excess – most youth sports are with the parents putting unrealistic pressure to succeed on those poor kids. I think all sports should be non-contact to high school level and parents need to curb their own selfish projections and do what is best for their kids.

  6. Amanda says:

    I don’t think that football should be banned or something, but I do think that full contact football shouldn’t start until at least middle school. There is no reason to have 3rd graders tackling each other. In fact, I bet that if they were to play flag football instead, they may end up learning more about the other fundamentals in football and more about strategy.

  7. Linda, T.O.O. says:

    “Every sport has its excess – most youth sports are with the parents putting unrealistic pressure to succeed on those poor kids.” Eh. I think that’s more of an anomoly than what most parents and coaches are doing. All three of my kids do a ton of sports (including contact sports) and I wouldn’t have them play in leagues that weren’t mindful of safety. Kids should be competing only at levels in which they have passed skills tests and are fully competent. If that’s not happening, it’s the parents’ responsibility to find another league/coach/mentor. I also know that in our house, the drive to compete in sports comes from within the inidividual children, not from outside sources.

  8. Dennise says:

    My daughter has received more injuries in competitive cheerleading than my son, who plays football. She had 2 concussions before she left the sport. The whole concussion thing is very scary but I think sports like hockey and boxing are far more dangerous than football.

  9. Rick says:

    I have successfully coached flag football for 8 years through SCMAF organization this is not just a passing league. I made the choice after doing my research, with Bobby Hosea’s train em up Acedemy. I played football and honestly I remember back to the coaching yelling and screaming head to head, I want to hear some cracking and your helmet is to clean. I finally decided to put my younger son in to assess his tackling skills, and ended up with a head coaching position. Little did I know that my philosophy would not be accepted in the tackle community. I allowed a few parents to help and after a few weeks I find out that all the coaches where not on board and as a matter of fact even conspired and Sabotaged the team in order to make me look bad, after board meetings and arguments I had to step down, I had to stand my ground and being a sell out has never been in my soul. Good luck to all the parents who put their kids at the mercy of this archaic mentality. Things can change but only when people accept their is a problem.

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