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Will the risk of brain injury dampen your child's gridiron dreams

Youth sports can be brutal. When I was a teen, I went to one of my sister's field hockey games. In the span of five minutes, three members of the opposing team had to be helped off the field after being struck by the hard-as-a-rock field hockey ball. A few minutes later, a fourth player was down on the ground, and a lively debate ensued about whether -- given the shrinking bench and the carnage that had already taken place -- it might be best to call the game.

Still, the risk of field hockey looks positively minimal when you compare it to the risk of playing football, which has suddenly become a huge public health concern as evidence mounts that the repeated contact that is part of the game can lead to a kind of brain damage called chronic traumatic encephalopathy that eventually mimics dementia.

The risks to pro football players is increasingly clear (the New Yorker recently compared pro football to dogfighting), but new evidence emerged this week that it's not just the 300-pound linemen playing on Sundays that put themselves at risk: college (and perhaps even high school players) might be suffering meaningful brain damage, too. The New York Times said this week that Mike Borish, a former college wide receiver who died in February at age 42, had a brain riddled with the evidence of serious trauma, offering the first evidence of such an injury in a non-professional football player.

It's unlikely -- because I have two girls -- that I'll have to make a decision about football specifically. But given that football is, now, America's most popular sport, there are plenty of parents who will now have more to think about when their tween boy wants to go out for the junior high football team. How about you: Has anyone re-thought your position on youth football, given the latest round of media attention?

By Brian Reid |  October 23, 2009; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Safety , Teens
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Comments


Thanks for linking to the Post article. Very, very interesting.

I'm banking on my kids inheriting my build and not their father's. Football would then be a moot point.

Posted by: em15 | October 23, 2009 8:53 AM | Report abuse

Maybe this evidence will inspire someone to invent safer sports equipment for kids - i.e., better helmets and padding for football.

Posted by: GroovisMaximus61 | October 23, 2009 9:04 AM | Report abuse

Anybody who can draw credibal similarities between the game of football and dogfighting is a whack job. Seriously.

As for the recent diagnosis of head injuries of former professional football players, it won't change my mind in the least for my boys participating in their choice of sports, the tweenager doing Tae Kwon Doe, and the 2nd grader playing his first season of football. These sports are a great outlet for my boys to engage in physical contact using their power, agility, strength and speed. The benefits of competing in a controled environment to satisfy their instinctive curosity to establish their place in the King of the Hill is much safer than to do it without rules, which males will resort to if given no other means. Boys will be boys. Of course, any sport can be made safer, but in the case of contact sports, it's a matter of the details of the game to compromise in the name of safety.

For the girls, maybe not football, but cheerleading is a great sport. However, believe it or not, look it up if you want, cheerleading ranks as the most injury prone competitive activity amung all organized high school and college sports.

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | October 23, 2009 9:42 AM | Report abuse

After watching my cousins and uncle have knee surgery, shoulder surgery, hip surgery, back surgery, you name it, for old football injuries, I made the choice that my kids will stay off the football field. All of these men played through college and it was really, really hard on their bodies in a way I haven't seen with friends/family who played other sports at the college level. It doesn't seem worth the future health problems.

Posted by: sjneal | October 23, 2009 9:59 AM | Report abuse

Well, I will encourage basketball, soccer, and baseball for my son since those are sports that I like, but if he wants to play football, I will let him. The chances of my kid playing any sport (other than maybe ultimate frisbee) in college are pretty slim given our families' nonathleticism...

Posted by: VaLGaL | October 23, 2009 10:05 AM | Report abuse

I can't say the latest round of media attention has anything to do with it, but football has always been way down on the list of sports I'd prefer my kids to play. I grew up in the bad-old-days of high schoolers keeling over during August two-a-days because coach thought water breaks were for sissies. And over the past few decades, who hasn't known about steroids? Paralysis risks? 30-yr-old former linemen who can't walk any more because their knees are so shot and who have heart attacks at 35? Etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum. Same old song, different key.

That said, if my boy really really wants to play it, I won't stop him. I think you can get tremendous value from throwing yourself into something you love. It's hard to describe without resorting to nice, trite aphorisms, like "teamwork," "dedication," "the joy of competition," etc. etc. etc. Those words are just pale reflections of the visceral need to not let down your team -- the thing that drives you to bust your butt for hours and hours, that makes you stand up to the pressure even when you feel overwhelmed, and that sometimes even leads you to discover that you could do more than you ever imagined.

Problem is, that sort of drive and desire and experience comes from love. You can't fake it with something that you sorta-kind-like-ok. So sure, I'll try to guide my boy in other directions, but if he goes gonzo for football, I'm not going to stand in his way. But I will keep a very, very close eye on how his coach manages things, at least while he's under my roof.

Posted by: laura33 | October 23, 2009 10:41 AM | Report abuse

My father, who suffers from stoved in hands and shoulder bursitis, refused to allow me to play football and signed me up for lacross instead. I thank him everyday for his sage wisdom.

Football is a joke. Take away those helmets! They are used as weapons. Everyone and his brother are taught to lead with the helmet to make hits. No wonder football players get brain damage. They would rather have brain damage then a few missing teeth which would really screw up those Nike endorsement deals.

Posted by: biffgrifftheoneandonly | October 23, 2009 10:51 AM | Report abuse

It's about time we had some recognition that encouraging kids to run into each other headfirst at full speed is barbaric and damaging. That our culture continues to glorify this is an indictment of human nature; we have not yet left our brutal tribal origins behind.

It's bad enough that grown men destroy themselves this way for our entertainment (and corporate/college profits), but at least adults can make a somewhat informed decision to sacrifice their bodies and brains; to encourage unwitting kids to do this to themselves is indeed akin to dogfighting.

Posted by: DupontJay | October 23, 2009 11:01 AM | Report abuse

I have an old football warrior father, 4 years in HS, 4 years in Air Force, 4 years in College. his body is beat to hell, 2 replaced hips, replaced knee, arthritis, bone spurs up and down his back, it's amazing he can walk.

HAving recounted that tale - he played 50 years ago. To compare the beating he took on the football field in the 50's and 60's to today's football experience in HS, College or beyond is silly.

My husband played HS football in the early 80's - even since then equipment, practices, drills and the RULES have changed to prevent injury.

If you don't want your kid to play football because you are worried about possible long term brain injuries if they have a long career - that's your choice. My son will play, hopefully well, get a scholarship and save me thousands while your kid is sitting on the sideline wishing they were playing - but couldn't because they were bubble wrapped as kids.

No pain, no gain. It's not a pain free world and you may get hit by a bus tomorrow - so stay home!

Posted by: cheekymonkey | October 23, 2009 11:02 AM | Report abuse

PS -- I also have to say that this continuing focus on "the latest round of media attention" is one of my pet peeves. There's been a lot of research over the last several years about how we humans tend to weigh risks really poorly. And one aspect of that is our tendency to overweight the stuff that is right in front of us at this very moment, and underweight risks that may be more significant but less prominent.

I try to keep this in mind in making judgments about what my kids can and can't do, vs. swinging from one crisis du jour to the next. I cannot protect my kids from every possible harm -- and really, I wouldn't be doing them any favors if I did. So I try to focus most of my time, attention, and effort on the big stuff that I can control -- things like getting enough sleep, using carseats/seat belts, putting reasonably healthy foods on the table, homework and study habits, getting enough running-around time, no smoking, regular doctor and dentist visits, etc. etc. etc. Beyond that, well, I try not to drive myself too nuts with the might-coulds.

Posted by: laura33 | October 23, 2009 11:16 AM | Report abuse

DupontJay: "It's about time we had some recognition that encouraging kids to run into each other headfirst at full speed is barbaric and damaging."

Okay, so you want to prevent kids from playing sports into which you run (or skate) into each other at high speed? ("Headfirst" is strictly illegal in football, even though it's done way too often.) Then you've thrown out football, lacrosse, ice hockey, rugby, baseball (think Pete Rose/Ray Fosse), all forms of martial arts, etc.

Want to also ban sports in which kids can accidentally run into each other at high speed, or hit a ball at each other? Than you've also wiped out basketball, soccer (and all of that heading - goodness, that's bad for the brain), softball, field hockey, volleyball, and even tennis.

The only sports I can think of that would be left are golf, badminton, and running races.

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | October 23, 2009 11:21 AM | Report abuse

Army brat, don't split hairs. The issue is not "running into each other at full speed". The issue is using your helmet to spear someone in the hopes of injuring them, which football 101. Hurt the other guy on purpose. We are not taught to spear the opponent in Lacrosse. This would give the other team a power play. There is no such penalty in football, brain damage not being counted.

Posted by: biffgrifftheoneandonly | October 23, 2009 11:27 AM | Report abuse

My son never had any interest in playing football, so this particular question is moot. Had he wanted to, I would have let him, and been involved only to the extent necessary to make sure the rules were being followed (e.g., you don't block or tackle head first; it's a penalty even in the NFL).

Over the years, my kids have played baseball, basketball, soccer, and volleyball; plus snowboarded, skied, rollerbladed, parasailed, run, lifted weights and done numerous other activities. Oldest DD's job this summer had her riding around in helicopters, private planes, humvees, and various other vehicles.

And through it all, the injuries have come from the simplest things: snowboarding (broken arm - DON'T PUT YOUR HAND DOWN IF YOU'RE GOING TO FALL), volleyball (sprained ankles), softball (finger mashed against the bat), and falling down the stairs (don't turn around and walk down a flight of stairs backwards while talking to your friends:-)

As for football, I played when I was in high school, and I haven't noticed any.. any... blue! Green! 42! I'm sorry, what was the question again? :-)

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | October 23, 2009 11:27 AM | Report abuse

Football moms are the coolest!

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | October 23, 2009 11:28 AM | Report abuse

If my kid wants to play football, well, I'll be out there rooting for him. Tackle football without equipment as a perennial favorite of mine as a kid and I'm not any the worse for wear -- and I have a fairly modest build.

Do injuries happen? Yes. Does the possibility increase as the level of violence of the sport increases? Yes. But life is a contact sport. If you can't figure out how to take your lumps during childhood, you're going to have a hard time when it happens in adulthood.

Besides, I'm trying to raise a man who knows his physical, emotional and intellectual mettle, not a limp-wristed wimp.

Posted by: JoStalin | October 23, 2009 11:34 AM | Report abuse

It'll be soccer and baseball as preferred choices in this household. I was unhappy as a child for being prohibited from going out for football. Some years later, I realized my parents had a point. Those kids would have *killed* me.

BB

Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | October 23, 2009 11:45 AM | Report abuse

I'm just basing my decision on what I've seen in my family and among our friends. We have people who ran, practiced marshal arts, swam, played basketball and soccer, skied, snowboarded, etc., and those who played football through HS are by far the worst off as a group. We also know a former elite gymnast who, at 22 with popping joints and arthritis, said she wished she'd never put her body through those workouts. Injuries can and do happen in any sport, but the general wear and tear seems much worse to me with football. The other thing I've noticed is that HS girls seem to have very fragile ACLs, something I'd keep in mind if I had daughters.

Posted by: sjneal | October 23, 2009 11:54 AM | Report abuse

Here's a stat to ponder: 784 cyclists died in 2005. Though difficult to estimate because of under reporting, cyclists are also many more times likely to get injured, especially their head while riding a bike than just about any other sport/activity. Playing football doesn't even compare.

So for the safety freaks that won't let their kid play football due to the risk of injury, will they not even teach their kid to ride a bike? Will they join hands and form a "Ban the Bike" coalition? Or perhaps the crass application of a double standard for these folks is completely acceptable...

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | October 23, 2009 12:15 PM | Report abuse

I wonder why a better-quality helmet can't be designed that would prevent this kind of thing.

Incidentally, soccer is also known to cause long-term brain damage because of the constant heading of the ball.

I probably wouldn't forbid my kids to play either of these sports, but I would make sure they understood the long-term risks and probably encourage them to take up something else. There are a lot more sports around than just football.

Posted by: floof | October 23, 2009 12:26 PM | Report abuse

Ditto Laura.

Cheekymonkey, good luck with that scholarship thing.

Posted by: LizaBean | October 23, 2009 12:26 PM | Report abuse

"Incidentally, soccer is also known to cause long-term brain damage because of the constant heading of the ball. "


LOL - are you kidding me?? that's hilarious.

Posted by: interestingidea1234 | October 23, 2009 12:36 PM | Report abuse

I have no rules against playing any sport, the only rule I have is that kid can't play a sport more than 6 months in a year. That means (where I live) no fall baseball, no summer hockey, no spring soccer.

Posted by: 06902 | October 23, 2009 12:37 PM | Report abuse

"The issue is using your helmet to spear someone in the hopes of injuring them, which football 101. Hurt the other guy on purpose."

For the love of Pete, what football training do you have?

OH! The Humanity!

Posted by: cheekymonkey | October 23, 2009 1:14 PM | Report abuse

Most dangerous sports:

Gymnastics and ......... drum roll please (and I am not kidding) .......CHEERLEADING!

Posted by: cheekymonkey | October 23, 2009 1:17 PM | Report abuse

There is no such penalty in football, brain damage not being counted.

Posted by: biffgrifftheoneandonly | October 23, 2009 11:27 AM | Report abuse

Sure there is. It's called a personal foul and it's 15 yards and an automatic first down.

Posted by: dennis5 | October 23, 2009 1:36 PM | Report abuse

My son is in second grade and he's already saying he wants to play football. I have no problem with football itself, the problem is that I haven't been able to find a team/league that is non-competitive. Football is definitely the worst sport in this regard - all the youth leagues here are ultra-competitive, even the first and second grade one. I refuse to let my son play on a team where the coach spends 95% of practice yelling at the kids.

He also wants to do wrestling and I found a team that seems to be pretty low-key, so I signed him up starting next month. The coach seems to have the right attitude about letting the kids learn the sport in a non-competitive environment, and then they can move on to more competitive teams as they progress.

My first grade daughter does gymnastics in a good recreational program, and they both do martial arts. Again, the key is that they are able to learn the sports with good coaches/instructors in an age-appropriate setting. As they get older and have a good idea of which sports they really enjoy, then they can advance to the more competitive teams.

Posted by: dennis5 | October 23, 2009 1:46 PM | Report abuse

Dennis,

Okay, I gotta ask - how do you find a "non-competitive" wrestling program? I wrestled in middle school in Germany and it's by its very nature the most competitive sport in which I've ever participated. Let down your guard for one second and wham, you're pinned. I certainly understand teaching sportsmanship, respect for your opponent and the sport, etc. but how do you cut down the competitiveness?

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | October 23, 2009 3:38 PM | Report abuse

ArmyBrat,

Obviously there's a competitive nature to wrestling when you're on the mat. I'm talking about the attitude of the coach.

The program I found has two six-week sessions and you can do one or both. There are practices twice a week and two meets per session. We have a conflict on one of the nights and the coach is fine with my son only going to one practice a week. They have separate rooms for the for the new kids and the experienced kids. They weigh the kids once at the start of each session so they can match them up - the don't even weigh in at the meets.

This compares to another program I looked into that runs for four months with practices two nights a week with an optional third night and a meet every other weekend. Again, we have a conflict with one of the nights and this coach didn't seem too open to the idea of someone going only one night a week.

From talking to the coach for the first team, he seems to have the attitude of teaching the kids how to wrestle and letting them get their feet wet without having to make a big commitment. From talking to the second coach, he seems to be expecting a much more serious commitment that I think is unreasonable to expect from a second grader who has never tried the sport.

Posted by: dennis5 | October 23, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

Dennis, Your not talking about competitive coaches, you are talking about the expectations of the coaches. Big Difference. We've talked about travel soccer teams where there was no excused absences for practices or games even if your grandmother died, that's not competitive - it's just stupid.

As for football coaches yelling, that's just an jerk coach. Look at Tony Dungy, never yelled but is super competitive and won. There is a big difference.

Posted by: cheekymonkey | October 23, 2009 5:21 PM | Report abuse

Cheeky, I call them competitive coaches because usually coaches who act like that are more concerned about winning than teaching kids the sport.

Posted by: dennis5 | October 23, 2009 5:29 PM | Report abuse

Posting late, but wanted to share that over the weekend at my 10 year old's football game, I saw a teammate take a hard helmet to helmet hit. The kid complained of being dizzy, and sat on the bench the rest of the game- in the pouring rain! I watched him shiver and wondered why his parents didn't just take him home as he was clearly suffering...

I don't want to sit in judgement of the parents or the coach... but concussions are 'invisible injuries' and any kid that takes a hit like that needs to be assured that he is a valued team member and should be able to take a time out to fully recuperate without repurcussions. Clearly, the coach has a style in which he expects them to 'tough it out', as I have observed on many occasions.

Coaches in our county undergo extensive background checks before being allowed to work with the children, but I don't think they receive any education about the danger of head injuries, nor is there any policy about recommended rest periods for kids that take tough hits like this. It seems to me with the recently discovered information coming to light that more should be done to protect our children, and to educate the parents about head injuries.

I am glad the season is almost over!

Posted by: HuckleberryFriend | October 26, 2009 9:06 AM | Report abuse

Football is a great sport because it is the ultimate teamwork sport. However, it is not worth the price in injuries. Even if one avoids the brain injuries, the trouble it causes to knees makes it a fool's game.

Thank goodness crosscountry season is at the same time.

Posted by: edbyronadams | October 26, 2009 11:39 AM | Report abuse

fr HuckleberryFriend:

>...The kid complained of being dizzy, and sat on the bench the rest of the game- in the pouring rain! I watched him shiver and wondered why his parents didn't just take him home as he was clearly suffering...

One would wonder why the "parents" didn't take him to a doctor, as that is child neglect

Posted by: Alex511 | October 26, 2009 12:06 PM | Report abuse

For Alex511- the parents were both there, and I was wondering the same thing. They asked their son if he was OK. As time passed, it was clear that he still wasn't able to go back in and play. He took the hit in the first quarter. Once halftime rolled around and he was still dealing with a headache and in pouring rain, it is my opinion that the Coach should have told him to go home and get rest. (He should have told the parents to use watch him carefully and use their judgement about further treatment.) Frankly, the Coach is a tough guy who wants kids to not be wimpy and bounce back from the bumps and hits that come with the territory in football. I'm not suggesting here that the kid should have been whisked away right after the incident happened, but by halftime, it was time to call it a day. The boy and his family, deserved and needed the Coach's blessing and encouragement to take care. There is pressure, even among the youngest children, to power through the hurt and even to play when injured. Our county and many others in this area take care to promote healthy fitness and good sportsmanship by the parents and coaches, but this is an area that needs more attention.

I am very much against kids being mollycoddled...but I do wish there was more training for kids and parents alike about the dangers of head injuries.

Posted by: HuckleberryFriend | October 26, 2009 1:42 PM | Report abuse

For Alex511- the parents were both there, and I was wondering the same thing. They asked their son if he was OK. As time passed, it was clear that he still wasn't able to go back in and play. He took the hit in the first quarter. Once halftime rolled around and he was still dealing with a headache and in pouring rain, it is my opinion that the Coach should have told him to go home and get rest. (He should have told the parents to use watch him carefully and use their judgement about further treatment.) Frankly, the Coach is a tough guy who wants kids to not be wimpy and bounce back from the bumps and hits that come with the territory in football. I'm not suggesting here that the kid should have been whisked away right after the incident happened, but by halftime, it was time to call it a day. The boy and his family, deserved and needed the Coach's blessing and encouragement to take care. There is pressure, even among the youngest children, to power through the hurt and even to play when injured. Our county and many others in this area take care to promote healthy fitness and good sportsmanship by the parents and coaches, but this is an area that needs more attention.

I am very much against kids being mollycoddled...but I do wish there was more training for kids and parents alike about the dangers of head injuries.

Posted by: HuckleberryFriend | October 26, 2009 1:43 PM | Report abuse

Sorry for accidentally posting twice! :-0

Posted by: HuckleberryFriend | October 26, 2009 1:44 PM | Report abuse

"It seems to me with the recently discovered information coming to light that more should be done to protect our children, and to educate the parents about head injuries."

What are you waiting for?

And did you say anything to the coach or parents? If the kid was sitting there bleeding would you have said something? If you were so concerned about a 10 year old's brain, it seems the sensible thing would have been to do what you could to get him help.

Posted by: 06902 | October 26, 2009 2:17 PM | Report abuse

Hi 060902...As a matter of fact, I have been looking into all of this. I've contacted our county sports commissioner to ask about head injuries and education for Coaches, kids and parents. My kid wears a special insert in his helmet for extra protection, and we've had several discussions about the danger of head injuries and concussions. He will not be afraid to stand up for himself if he is feeling dizzy after a hit to the head. And he knows he has 100 % support from his parents on this.

This is a big issue that requires more than a knee jerk response. The boy wasn't bleeding or convulsing, but he told the coach his head hurt after the hit. He then sat on the bench to rest and watch the rest of his game. I am no doctor, but of course I would have said something if I noticed clear distress. But he sat on the bench because he was loyal to his coach and teammates- that was where he wanted to be.

I don't know his parents well, but I have no doubt they love him very much. (Dad is kind of arrogant, and I worry he might have told me to mind my business if I'd said something.) Hopefully they kept a close eye on him after the game and he got plenty of rest and is doing just fine.

I do want to call attention to this issue, but I don't want to hyper-parent or alienate people while doing so. Kind of like winning the battle, but losing the war...

Posted by: HuckleberryFriend | October 26, 2009 2:59 PM | Report abuse

"Hopefully they kept a close eye on him after the game and he got plenty of rest and is doing just fine."

Yeah, "hopefully" someone is helping Kitty Genovese somewhere....

Posted by: 06902 | October 26, 2009 3:53 PM | Report abuse

060902 - Your comparing a kid taking a hit in the helmet with Kitty Genovese makes it clear that you probably haven't spent much time on the sidelines of a football game or youth sporting event that involves lots of rough and tumble contact. You seem to have totally missed the point I was trying to make, and seem to prefer jumping to your own conclusions.

Posted by: HuckleberryFriend | October 26, 2009 6:00 PM | Report abuse

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