The news keeps getting worse for youth football. Among the latest developments is a study by researchers at Boston University’s School of Medicine that suggests playing tackle football before the age of 12 could lead to earlier onset of cognitive, behavior and mood symptoms later in life.
According to a report issued by the university, “researchers conducted telephone clinical interviews with family and friends of 246 deceased football players and found that those who began tackle football before age 12 experienced symptoms an average of 13 years earlier than those who started playing at age 12 or older. … The researchers, who controlled for total years of play and level of play and factored in what decade athletes started playing (to account for different styles of play and protection through the years), found that each year younger that athletes began to play tackle football correlated with an earlier onset of cognitive problems by 2.4 years, and behavioral and mood problems by 2.5 years.”
The study was published in the Annals of Neurology in April.
“Youth exposure to repetitive head impacts in tackle football may reduce one’s resiliency to brain diseases later in life, including, but not limited to CTE,” the study’s senior author Ann McKee, who also is chief of neuropathology at Boston VA Healthcare System and director of BU’s CTE Center, said in a statement. “It makes common sense that children, whose brains are rapidly developing, should not be hitting their heads hundreds of times per season.”
CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, is a degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma. In 2017, McKee found CTE in the brains of 110 of 111 deceased NFL players.
BU’s School of Medicine cautions that “although this study supports the idea that there may be long-term consequences associated with experiencing repeated hits to the head during childhood, the researchers stress that it is unclear if their findings generalize to the broader tackle football population and that much more research, particularly prospective longitudinal studies, is needed to understand the association between youth football and long-term consequences.”
That said, the research nevertheless is the latest in a growing body of evidence pointing to the dangers of repeated head trauma, especially in young athletes. Boston University’s news and information website BUToday.com noted that “the number of American kids ages 6 to 12 playing tackle football dropped to 1,217,000 in 2016, down slightly from 1,262,000 in 2015, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Pop Warner, the largest youth football program in the world, has officially limited contact during practices since 2012.”
While admitting that the decision to let their children play football is a tough one for parents to make, the Boston Herald urged discernment in a recent editorial:
Last year a study published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that injury was more likely to occur in youth flag football than in youth tackle football.
So there are no easy answers at the moment.
With so many children glued to smartphones, iPads and the like, immobile and mesmerized for hours, organized sports are a blessing. Though it is our responsibility to make sure kids are playing safely, let’s hope that raw emotions don’t translate into nearsighted political measures that ruin a good thing.