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Reimer: After landmark study, it's time to consider abolishing youth tackle football

Alex Reimer
September 20, 2017 - 10:58 am

Kids are barred from partaking in some risky activities and behavior. They aren’t allowed to drive until they’re 16 and can’t purchase most firearms until they’re 18. Harmful substances, such as alcohol and tobacco, are kept out of the hands of children as well. 

It’s time to consider whether tackle football should be added to the list. 

Boston University published a landmark study Tuesday that provides the clearest snapshot yet of the dangers of youth tackle football. According to the study’s results, there’s a “robust relationship between (playing football before age 12) and long-term clinical dysfunction.” Those who participate in tackle football before turning 12 double their chances of developing behavior problems and triple their risk of experiencing depression. 

This is the second milestone study from BU in three months. In July, the university’s acclaimed CTE center published findings that show the brains of 110 of 111 deceased ex-NFL players contain traces of the degenerative brain disease. 

There’s little debate about the linkage between football and head trauma. Even the NFL itself has admitted it. Last year, the league’s top health and safety officer, Jeff Miller, fessed up to the truth in front of Congress. 

Despite these indisputable facts, doubters remain. On Tuesday, Dr. Peter Cummings, a forensic pathologist and neuropathologist, published a piece on Yahoo! detailing why he allows his 11-year-old son to play tackle football. Cummings cherrypicks a couple of studies that contradict BU’s most recent revelation, including data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study among men graduating high school in Wisconsin in 1957. The exercise, which looked at folks who played high school in Wisconsin in the 1950s, discovered its subjects didn’t face increased cognitive impairment or depression later in life, on average. 

But it’s questionable as to whether those results apply to kids today. For starters, football is much different game now than it was in the 1950s. Athletes, even at the high school level, are stronger and more physical. Plus, the issue isn’t high school tackle football. As Chris Nowinski, the co-director for of BU’s CTE Center and cofounder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, told me last year, playing high school ball doesn’t carry nearly as much risk as youth football. 

“Only five percent of [high school players] go on to play in college and only a small percentage of those go on to play professionally,” he said. “Then, very few football players in this country would develop CTE. Four years of exposure is not going to be enough to start CTE in most people.”

Cummings also cites the selection bias in BU’s CTE study, correctly pointing out the only players who would want to donate their brains posthumously are those who experienced CTE symptoms while they were alive. Even Dr. Ann McKee, one of the study’s authors, acknowledges the slanted sample.

But that doesn’t mean the results should be discounted. At least 1,200 ex-NFL players have passed away since the league’s inception. Even if those 110 players are the only ones who had from CTE, which is doubtful, that means NFL players suffer from the degenerative brain disease at a nine percent clip. That figure is still well above the general population. 

The risks of exposing kids to tackle football are spelled out. As Nowinski also points out, most pre-teens aren’t even physically developed enough to tackle properly. Thus, they wind up putting their bodies in greater danger.

“To ask football players to play before they can build upper-body strength is cruel, because you have to use your head—your head is gigantic when you’re a child,” he told me. “There’s such a long list of reasons to not subject these poor kids to tackle football before high school.”

The NFL works with youth football programs to make the game safer. But that’s putting lipstick on a pig. Football, at its core, features players smashing their heads against each other. There are no compelling reasons to expose kids to that kind of physical contact. While every sport carries risk, football seems to be the riskiest. 

Nobody is saying the kids must be kept inside and protected with bubble wrap. But the science says they should wait until their teenage years before stepping onto the gridiron. The question is no longer whether football is safe for adolescents. It’s whether we’re going to keep putting them in danger before they can even grow a strand of facial hair.

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