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The Risks of Playing Football Under the Age of 12 Keep Mounting — So Is It Even Worth It?

kids playing football
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Talk of head trauma and the risk of long-term repercussions from tackles in football is not a new topic. Time after time, we hear of NFL players with brain damage after enduring years of concussions. The NFL has even begun instituting safer tackling techniques aimed at reducing head-to-head collisions as well as promoting flag football as a safer alternative. And now, a recent long-term study conducted at Boston University is taking aim at football once again, finding that “athletes who began playing tackle football before the age of 12 had more behavioral and cognitive problems later in life than those who started playing after they turned 12.”

As a mom of two boys, football is on my mind. They are only 8 and 4, so it hasn’t come up yet. And chances are, my computer-loving 8-year-old will skip right by it all together. But my 4-year-old lives for sports and is naturally very athletically talented. He mows by his peers on the soccer field and throws the baseball harder and farther than kids his age. I will not be surprised if a coach tries to recruit him for football in the future. What then, will I say?

There’s a reason that “participation in tackle football by boys ages 6 to 12 has fallen by nearly 20 percent since 2009,” as reported by The New York Times. And the article goes on to say, “Schools across the country have shut their tackle football programs because of safety concerns and a shortage of players.”

Is football dangerous for young kids? This study says yes. As The New York Times reports:

“The results of the study by researchers at Boston University, published in the journal Nature’s Translational Psychiatry, was based on a sample of 214 former players, with an average age of 51. Of those, 43 played through high school, 103 played through college and the remaining 68 played in the N.F.L. In phone interviews and online surveys, the researchers found that players in all three groups who participated in youth football before the age of 12 had a twofold ‘risk of problems with behavioral regulation, apathy, and executive function’ and a threefold risk of ‘clinically elevated depression scores.'”

Those statistics are terrifying.

Furthermore, other studies are finding similar, and equally alarming, results. In an article previously published by Babble, another study — this one conducted at Wake Forest School of Medicine — revealed similar results.

That study, which tested boys between the ages of 8 and 13 who had played football, “used special MRI imaging technology to look at the players’ fractional anisotropy (FA). A higher FA signals healthy white matter and regular water movement in the brain, while a lower FA shows lower water movement and disruptions in the brain. In the end, study authors found that the more a player was exposed to hard hits and forceful impact during the football season, the more likely they had a lower FA score, which has been associated with brain abnormalities.”

The bottom line is that scientists and doctors are coming together to share with parents and coaches this fact: The human brain is growing rapidly before age 12, so it is not safe for kids to play tackle football until age 13.

And kids’ football leagues are taking note. The nationally known Pop Warner football league has said in a statement that the sport is significantly safer since these studies have been published. And with facing a lawsuit stating the league knowingly put players in danger by ignoring the dangers of head trauma, they are seeing that they have no other option but to make changes that protect their players.

Parents have a choice to make when enrolling their kids in sports. We are a big “team sports” family, and our kids are involved in something athletic year-round. We believe in the benefits of sports, not only for their physical development, but also for the value of playing on a team. Football is a different beast, however, and research studies like these will certainly give me pause when my son inevitably asks to play one day in the future. He only gets one brain, after all.

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