With recent headlines for the National Football League on head injuries revealing devastating results, more questions are now being raised about how to keep kids safe from similar future outcomes. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University, new research examining the brains of 91 deceased football players found signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE in 96 perfect of them. This comes following previous evidence of the dangers CTE, a progressive degeneration of the brain, and playing football spreading well into a player’s retirement. It’s also the subject of a new film to be released Christmas Day starring Will Smith who plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, the neuropathologist who discovered CTE.
What does the latest evidence show?
The latest evidence points to repeated minor blows to the head as more hazardous over a period of years rather than a single violent hit. Boston University researchers indicate changes in the brain can start months, years, or decades after the last trauma to the brain or the end of active athletic participation (Boston University CTE Center, 2015). Changes include memory loss, controlling impulses, depression, dementia, confusion, impaired judgement, and aggression. Such degenerative outcomes suggests addressing CTE may require more attention and determined action with sports programs at every level.
This verification grabbed the attention of Chris Borland, an NFL rookie who decided a 4-year contract worth 3 million dollars with the San Francisco 49ers was not work the risk. He told ESPN, “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk…I’m concerned if you wait you have symptoms, it’s too late.” (Fox News, 2015)
Parents also appear to be taking note. Pop Warner, the nation’s largest youth football program, has experienced a 9.5 percent drop in participation since 2011 after hitting an all-time peak in 2010. (ESPN, 2013). Spokespersons for Pop Warner admit the concussion findings of the NFL are the number one contribution to the decline in numbers but they also indicate more youth are focusing on a single sport over playing multiple sports.
In 2012, to address the issue, Pop Warner changed its practice rules to limit contact among players. Other youth football programs followed suit including the Frisco Football League in the Dallas Cowboys new headquarters city of Frisco, Texas, a suburb outside of Dallas.
What are the dangers and risks?
Obviously injuries come with the territory of playing sports especially football. According to the National High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance Study more than a million young athletes played high school football last year and more than half a million injuries were reported. Sprains and muscle strains represent a little over a third of the injuries and concussions exemplified about one-quarter of all football-related injuries (Comstock, Currey, & Collins, 2014).
The health and mental benefits of physical activity including participating in sports remains undeniable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) strongly encourages parents to keep children and adolescents active. According to the CDC such involvement reduces risk of obesity, type 2 Diabetes, the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease. Studies confirm the benefit of physical activity with less depression and anxiety and the Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) reports coaches and parents believe the life lessons gained through sports prepares young people for the reality of adult life (Positive Coaching Alliance, 2015).
What can coaches and parents do?
Reducing serious injuries without removing young people from participating in sports appears to be the challenge before our athletic culture. Youth organizations and the NFL have limited full-contact practices. High school and college programs need to enact similar protocols. The NCAA recommends limits and some conferences have moved to make those limits mandatory.
Most youth coaches are volunteers. Thus, make sure proper coaching certification and training of athletes in fundamentals and technique are in place. This creates a higher level of safety. Parents can look for coaches associated with USA Football, a national organization certifying coaches and the only football coaching program certified by the National Council for Accreditation of Coaching Education (NCACE) and backed by the NFL. Find football programs teaching heads up tackling and athletes taught to look at who they hit. The head should not be used as a means for pushing through a pile of players.
Football basics and procedures are not the only thing to watch for to keep athletes safe. Look for programs and schools which actively train coaches, officials, athletes, and parents in the mental and life skills aspect of sports. PCA, noted above, has certified thousands nationwide through their live workshops, online courses, and books. The non-profit organization provides free tips and tools on their website positivecoach.org. These guidelines assist with improving self, teammates, and the game as whole by teaching character development as well as proper safety and handling of injuries when they do happen.
Technology also continues to contribute to improvement. New helmets will soon contain a chemical strip that lights up if a hit is sustained hard enough to result in a concussion. Once this hits the market, it should improve the ability to recognize if a concussion has occurred and decrease the dismissal by the athlete him or herself that a concussion has occurred.
What’s the bottom line?
Ultimately, parents and athletes must decide if the risk of violent sports like football, hockey, and soccer where the head is primarily impacted remains worth it. Proper training both physically and mentally improves chances of keeping the beneficial aspects of participation in sports while limiting the dangers. Changing sports to less violent options remains a choice as does playing multiple sports rather than continuing all year training in a fierce game like football. Regardless, discuss the matter and find a balance that works in keeping both physically and mentally fit.