I love football, but as a neurologist and headache specialist I have seen how football can harm a youngster’s brain and life. Many of the millions of young players will live to ripe old ages, and we must protect their only brain.
And one way to do that is to eliminate tackle football before age 18.
Concussions are part of football, with the severity ranging from mild (feeling dazed) to severe (out cold). The brain is somewhat like Jell-O, cushioned by fluid. During medium- or high-impact collisions, when the helmet suddenly stops, the brain keeps going through the fluid, banging into the rigid skull.
A cascade of events ensues. Billions of nerve cells flood the brain with chemicals. Vital blood flow is disrupted. It takes days to months for the brain to go back to normal. Symptoms include headaches, dizziness, problems with concentration and memory, depression, and insomnia. Some symptoms may linger for years. Players with multiple concussions have an increased chance of long-term problems that include chronic headache, lower GPAs, memory and emotional difficulties, dementia, and a host of other problems.
Equally disturbing are repeated knocks to the head that do not produce obvious concussion symptoms. A child who plays football from age 7-18 will typically sustain thousands of hits to the head during games and practices over the years. These can add up over time even without obvious symptoms, causing permanent brain injury.
High school players occasionally die from football. This may occur due to “second-impact syndrome,” from returning too soon after the first concussion. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) can result from many head impacts, and leads to death among NFL players and boxers. It recently also has been identified in high school- and college-age players.
The health risks are especially acute for the 3.5 million children aged 5 -14 who play football. In the delicate, developing brain, concussions may produce more long-term problems than in an adult. In one study, Virginia Tech researchers wired the helmets of 7- and 8-year-olds for one season. The kids averaged more than 100 significant impacts to the head for the season. Some of the collisions were enormously powerful, as severe as is seen among college players.
Kids’ brains are not simply smaller version of adult brains. For one, they do not have the protective covering of the nerve cells that is present by adulthood. Young children are like “bobbleheads,” with an oversized head on top of weak neck muscles that don’t cushion blows well. The younger kids’ brains take the entire shock. These are major head traumas to be absorbed by such immature, developing brains.
High school players have stronger neck and shoulder muscles that can absorb some of the force, but their developing brains remain vulnerable. A Purdue University study, by using advanced brain imaging, demonstrated that the high school players’ brains changed significantly for the worse during the season. Certain parts of the brain stopped working in peak form. The number of head hits per athlete, for the season, ranged from 226-1,855. Each practice or game produced an average of 15 knocks to the head.
On memory and thinking tests, players with no concussion symptoms still did poorly. A University of Michigan study discovered that players sustained, on average, 650 head hits per year. Linemen received the most of any position.
Short of banning tackle football, what can we do? Eliminating hitting in practice would help, as the majority of blows occur in practice. John Gagliardi, coach of St. John’s University in Minnesota, and the winningest coach in college history, has not allowed tackling in practice since 1956. Certified trainers are important. Improved helmets help a bit, but they are better for preventing fractures than concussions; mouth guards protect the teeth and mouth, but only help slightly with football concussions.
It’s crucial to educate coaches, parents, and kids about proper tackling technique, keeping heads up, and reporting concussions. However, young children and adolescents notoriously under-report concussions, so that they can keep playing. A buddy system, in which you are responsible for reporting your teammates’ concussion symptoms, is beneficial. “Concussion Rules” listed in current state laws may help a bit, but we don’t need a concussion to have serious brain damage.
Most reforms are unlikely to be implemented and enforced, for a variety of reasons. Even if they were, head collisions are part of the fabric of tackle football; kids will still be seriously injured.
My football heroes were Gail Sayers, Dick Butkus, and Walter Payton. I played quarterback and still love watching the game. Football is a beloved part of our culture. Many positives come from the game, for the players, other students, and parents. But we must acknowledge that too many of our young athletes will suffer a lifelong penalty that prevents them from using their minds to the fullest. Common sense tells us that thousands of head collisions to a young brain ought to be prevented.
Let’s begin to talk about curtailing tackle football, at least until the kids are 18.