Former linebacker in the National Football League and for Boston College; member of Concussion Legacy Foundation; Hopkinton resident
Football is the greatest game ever conjured by the human imagination. It gave me some of my greatest friends and most cherished moments. It took me all the way to the NFL, made me a Super Bowl champion. But I strongly oppose contact football for children before eighth grade.
Why? It’s simple, really. The long-term consequences of brain trauma are too severe to ignore. Most people know concussions are dangerous, but concussions aren’t the only problem. We’ve learned that hits to the head that don’t produce obvious symptoms are also dangerous. They can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease that causes problems with memory, mood, and behavior. CTE has been diagnosed in hundreds of football players.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says CTE is caused in part by repeated traumatic brain injuries, including concussions, and also by repeated hits to the head, called subconcussive head impacts.
During my 17 years playing organized football, I probably received 20,000 subconcussive hits. I am now at high risk for CTE, but I’m grateful I didn’t start earlier, or my risk would be even higher.
I am committed to not repeating the mistakes of the past. To protect children, who can’t possibly understand the risks that come with tackle football, we must accept that CTE is real, and work to minimize those risks. Children are especially vulnerable since their brains are developing.
The best way to protect children but allow this great game to flourish is to choose flag only before eighth grade. We can’t allow children to accumulate hundreds of damaging hits to the head when that safer option exists. The idea that a child has to tackle young to master the skill is a myth. Waiting until high school to play tackle didn’t hurt my career, or the careers of Tom Brady, Walter Payton, and Jim Brown.
Put another way, would it be socially acceptable to smack a child in the head a dozen times a week over a 10-week period?
That’s essentially what we are allowing with full contact youth football.
For the safety of our children, we need to enact this ban.
Marlborough resident, President of Massachusetts Youth Football Alliance
A pending bill on Beacon Hill would take the decision to play tackle football away from families and parents. Simply offering flag football or another option as an equal replacement is not giving tackle football the respect it deserves.
Tackle football offers all kids, including those who are awkward, clumsy, unathletic, or overweight, a chance to participate and make a difference as a valued team member. Flag football and most other sports cater to a narrower range of kids who are typically adept at running, catching, and throwing. The obesity rate for boys aged 6 to 11 is 20 percent; tackle football is the only sport that offers these at-risk youth this opportunity. Tackle football is the most inclusive sport available.
All sports carry a risk of injury. But a 2017 University of Iowa study of injury rates in three youth football leagues did not find flag football to be safer than youth tackle football. The headlines which are raising concerns about football’s overall safety are based on research with extreme selection bias, generally conducted only on a relatively small number of professional and college athletes.
“How football might affect the brains of our youngest players, including my son, is a question the research hasn’t answered yet,” Dr. Peter Cummings, a Boston University professor and neuropathologist who is chief medical advisor to the Massachusetts Youth Football Alliance, said in Yahoo Sports.
With the spotlight on football, radical changes have been made with equipment, safety practices, and gameplay. The “Heads-Up” tackling system initiated by USA Football in 2012 has led to a wave of changes from the high school level down. The medical studies highlighting the risks of tackle football are based on players that didn’t experience football as we practice and play it today.
A ban of youth tackle football is a tremendous overreach into the rights of parents to allow their children to play a game. Further, tackle football at the youth level is safer than ever, our coaches and administrators have never been trained more thoroughly, the equipment has never been better, and the research being used to support a ban is incomplete and unfairly targets the youth level of tackle football.
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As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. Anyone interested in suggesting a topic or writing a piece can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.