What will it take?
Last week was an especially grim one for football: On December 1, the Kansas City Chiefs’ Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend then shot himself. Two days later, a new study bolstered what is becoming obvious: That there is a link between head trauma — including routine hits in a football game — and long-term, degenerative brain disease.
So well-established is that link that news reports paired the Belcher story with the brain study, raising the possibility that the linebacker had come undone after too many hits. We don’t know enough — and may never know enough —to make that connection in his case. But this we do know: Every time a player suits up, he risks blows that, over time, can cause brain damage.
You could argue that grown men who play football know the risks and decide to play anyway (though the thousands of former players currently suing the NFL would beg to differ).
But what about the millions of kids who run onto football fields across the country to face the same dangers as the well-paid pros? They’re not making informed decisions — even though their young bodies leave them especially vulnerable to head trauma.
There is only one way to protect them: Ban tackle football for players under 14.
This seems to many like an excessive, even un-American, reaction. Surely there is a less nanny-state-ish way to protect kids?
Not according to Robert Cantu, a clinical professor of neurosurgery at Boston University Medical School, and co-director of the school’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.
“There is no way to make tackle football safe for youngsters,” says Cantu, who co-directed the study released last week. Because of the way they’re built, players under 14 are sitting ducks when it comes to head trauma. Their brains don’t contain as much myelin — the protein that insulates and protects nerve fibers — as adults. While their heads are almost fully grown, their bodies are much smaller and weaker, creating a “bobble-head” effect: Their necks justaren’t strong enough to protect them. Kids alsoaren’t as well coordinated as adults, and have slower reaction times, so they’re less able to evade hits, or brace themselves.
Add to all of this the fact that kids often use older equipment, have less-experienced coaches, and don’t have the luxury of medical personnel at games, and you’ve got a pretty troubling picture — one rendered vividly this past September, when a poorly run Pop Warner football game in central Massachusetts resulted in a whopping five concussions among the Tantasqua Pee Wees, aged 10-12.
Responding to the growing body of research on head trauma and brain damage, Pop Warner put new rules in place a couple of years ago reducing contact drills, educating coaches about concussions, and requiring that concussed players be cleared by doctors before they can play again.
All good, but it doesn’t fix the main problem: Unlike in most other sports, forceful contact is at football’s very core. For young players, and their young minds, there is no such thing as a safe tackle.
“Brain trauma is inevitable,” says Chris Nowinski, co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. “Whether your head is up or down, it is still taking trauma.’’
Nowinski knows whereof he speaks. He was a defensive tackle on the Harvard football team, and a WWE pro wrestler who was forced to retire in 2003 after a series of concussions.
Still, he knows there is huge resistance to the idea of moving kids into flag football until they’re big enough to better protect themselves, and mature enough to calculate the risks of playing like the big guys do.
“I don’t think Americans like being told what to do,” he says. “We live in a culture where it’s not popular to take choices away from parents.”
Shifting football culture will probably take years, perhaps decades. Change will inevitably come, however — if not under the weight of science, then under the weight of litigation. Today’s Pee Wees are tomorrow’s plaintiffs.