In March 2018, two California state lawmakers proposed a bill banning organized tackle football before high school. New York, Illinois, Maryland and New Jersey have also drafted – with varying success – their own plans to ban the youth sport. The proposed bans follow a slew of medical studies warning about the risk football poses to professional players and youth, specifically chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE.
Unsurprisingly, these bills have sparked some controversy. Any government regulation of America’s favorite sport is bound to stir the pot. Yet, the problem with bills that ban tackle football before high school is that they actually don’t go far enough. Tackle football poses irreparable damage to the development of young players, and is deserving of an all-out ban at every level of K-12 education.
Everyone knows that football is an extremely physical sport to play. It involves sustained physical contact between players as a result of repetitive tackling and blocking, where players are incentivized to use the full force of their stature to assist the ball across the field. But the degree to which that sustained activity damages players is phenomenally underestimated.
Recent studies put out by a range of medical journals and neurologists are beginning to paint a clear picture as to what that damage truly looks like. Robert Stern, a professor of neurology at Boston University, explains that the most dangerous part of contact is what is called “subconcussive hits,” the repeated blows to the head that usually don’t even result in a concussion. These hits, Stern says, result in changes to the brain’s structural integrity.
The result of these hits, which often occur by the hundreds per season for youth players, is that they make CTE an important risk factor for players. CTE, a progressive degenerative disease, is a condition of brain damage caused by “repetitive brain trauma,” which persists over a period of years or decades. Common symptoms include “memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, suicidality, parkinsonism and eventually progressive dementia.”
It’s only recently that the professional football community and the NFL have recognized the real risk playing poses to players, specifically regarding the likelihood of facing CTE. In fact, the NFL actively discouraged and undermined attempts to research the disease and its effects on players for years.
Now, the facts are out. A study in the medical journal JAMA reported that CTE was found in 99 percent of deceased NFL players’ brains that were donated to scientific research. Another study of deceased NFL players found they were three times more likely than the general population to die from a neurodegenerative disease.
The obvious difference between professional football players and youth players are in size and magnitude of physical contact. Kids running into each other aren’t going to produce the same impact as a trained, tackling machine in the NFL. However, even low-impact hits over a long period of time are enough to do damage to young, developing brains. A February 2018 study demonstrated that professional football players who started playing before the age of 12 uniquely revealed signs of “executive dysfunction, memory impairment and lower estimated verbal IQ.”
If football doesn’t dramatically increase the likelihood of CTE or concussions, it may well wreak havoc on your brain in other ways. A study in Translational Psychiatry found that people who began playing football before age 12 doubled their risk of behavior problems and cognitive impairment and tripled their risk of suffering from depression later in life.
Based on the available research, it’s clear that at the very least, football even at the earliest levels of competition poses a significant risk. According to the National Sporting Goods Association, around three million kids aged 7-17 play tackle football in America as of 2017. Odds are, if most of those three million kids stick with the sport for more than a few years, they’re subjecting their brains and bodies to irreversible harm.
Some claim there are ways to reduce the harms football incurs on young players. Better helmets and safer training methods that reduce physical contact have been floated as solutions. Unfortunately, that doesn’t take away the fact that tackling inherently involves the use of shoulders and arms, both of which are connected to the head. Regardless of the technique you use, the impact will always place an aggressive strain on the parts of your body that are either attached to or closest to your head. Therefore, you can try to make tackling safer, but you cannot make tackling safe.
There is no sense in continuing to introduce minors into a sport that at best harms the development of a child and at worst increases the chance of a debilitating disease. It’s the duty of not only parents and schools, but the state, to protect vulnerable populations from this kind of harm.