Youth Football: Is Keeping Your Kid’s Head in the Game Safe?


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For most kids, school has officially started again, meaning days filled with learning, homework, new friends, and of course, team sports like football. Your child might be looking forward to another season of hard football training, and he might be working hard in school to stay on the team. Still, are the dangers of youth football worth keeping your kid’s head in the game? According to doctors and scientists, it’s his head that might need to stay out of it.

In fact, one report by Think Progress states that youth football has seen over 40 deaths in the past few years alone. Of these, 17 kids died directly because of injuries sustained during a practice or a game.

In many cases, young football players are withstanding dozens of blows to the brain each season. Of particular concern for these growing athletes is a condition called CTE, or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. This condition is often found in veterans, athletes, and trauma patients who suffer repeated blows to the head.

With CTE, a person may start showing memory issues, confusion, or impaired judgment even in his 20s. He may also have trouble controlling emotions, getting aggressive at times or showing severe depression.  

The Impact of Youth Football

Because of the bodily strain involved in tackle football, experts have seen more reason in recent years to investigate health concerns like CTE. In 2015, the Mayo Clinic Brain Bank studied the effects by analyzing the brains of male athletes who started playing at a young age. They found that over 1/3 of the athletes had experienced some level of CTE.

On the other hand, when the scientists studied nearly 200 people who had no history with contact sports, they did not find a single case of CTE. While researchers need more studies to analyze the game’s exact effects, these experts are finding the research they do have alarming. Many players start this rough sport even before their teen years.  

By now, parents and doctors are voicing their concerns about the literal impact that young players are experiencing. During both practices and games, players endure repeated trauma to the head, and the damage goes beyond just protecting them from concussions.

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One team of researchers from the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center analyzed the head trauma that happens even during daily practice. The researchers studied 25 players between ages 8—13 by giving them helmets with special sensors. The researchers could then measure how much impact these players were encountering in practice.

Despite the idea that younger teams won’t hit each other as hard as the pros, the Wake Forest experts would beg to differ. Dr. Alex Powers, a pediatric neurosurgeon involved in this study, told NBC News that these kids “are hitting at extremely high levels.” The question is whether these hits will result in brain damage in the long run.

Changing the Future of Football

Due to these preliminary studies and the rising concern from parents about the dangers of youth football, leaders in the game are responding. Specifically, officials from U.S.A. Football, the national organization that oversees the amateur level, have already made some drastic rule changes.

For example, youth teams will no longer be kicking off or punting, and they’ll be playing in teams of 7 rather than 11. Officials are calling this version of youth football a modified tackle, and they hope that these changes will encourage parents and kids to keep playing.

As for the true safety of the modified tackle, U.S.A. Football will need more time to study it. They have seen promise in preliminary studies, although doctors and health experts have their doubts. Formerly, U.S.A Football had promoted the safety of their Heads Up Football campaign, until a recent investigation by the New York Times proved that it didn’t actually increase safety for young players.

Only time and research will tell the truth about modified tackle football. Until then, you’ll have to make your own choice about the game for your family based on the evidence available.

Because football players at any age will experience hard contact during the sport, parents and experts are raising some questions about its safety. Some kids have suffered injuries so great that they cause permanent brain damage, possibly increasing the chances for CTE. While experts need more time to study long-term impact, you’ll need to weigh the dangers of youth football for your family. So far, the stakes are looking high.