In an opinion piece published earlier this month, Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson wrote that the long-term health risks of tackle football are too severe for young children.
Citing the decision of the Boys & Girls Club of the Big Pines in Marshall, Texas, to cease its tackle-football program—a move he referred to “as a decision that should ring around America as a shot in the revolution to protect children’s brains"—along with the growing number of former football players who are found to have long-term brain damage, Jackson believes it’s too dangerous for young children to play tackle football.
In speaking with Bryan Partee, the executive director of the Big Pines Boys & Girls Club, Jackson learned that one of the club’s board members is a former National Football League defensive lineman who played on the New York Giants’ Super Bowl-winning teams in 1986 and 1990. According to Partee, the board member, Erik Howard, “told the board there was no need for children to bang their heads at such a young age.”
With chronic traumatic encephalopathy having been discovered in a vast majority of former football players’ brains—including some who only played through high school or college—Jackson believes the risks of tackle football are too great for children:
Whether they die young or degenerate in old age, we know enough not to start this process in children. Partee said reaction to the club's decision on social media has been evenly split between supporters and detractors who say "I'm a chicken contributing to the wussification of our kids. But we decided that even though we tried to make football as safe as possible, it wasn't safe enough." When a sport is not safe enough, take the children out of it.
Back in December, Dr. Bennet Omalu, the subject of the movie Concussion, wrote an editorial in The New York Times calling for parents to not allow their children to participate in high-impact contact sports (including football) until they age of 18. Because children “are minors who have not reached the age of consent,” Omalu believes “it is our moral duty as a society to protect the most vulnerable of us.” He suggested children aren’t neurologically developed enough before the age of 18 to properly weigh the long-term risks of playing football, and thus “no adult, not a parent or a coach, should be allowed to make this potentially life-altering decision for a child.”
It’s worth noting, however, that neither Omalu nor Jackson called for an end to football as a whole. They’re simply saying it’s too dangerous for children, who have notable developmental differences than full-grown adults. As Dr. Robert Cantu put it to Education Week back in 2012, children are “bobble-head dolls with big heads and weak necks,” which increases their vulnerability to head injuries. (In his 2012 book, “Concussions and Our Kids,” Cantu proposed a restriction on any child under 14 playing tackle football, body checking in hockey, or heading soccer balls.)
Even those in support of children continuing to play tackle football, such as Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders, believes parents “must be aware of the risks,” specifically in regard to brain injuries. In an editorial he wrote for USA Today, Sanders suggested “the dangers of long-term damage from repeated concussions must be understood as well, and that’s the biggest change from my playing days: None of us—doctors, coaches, players—had any idea of the lasting impact.”
While the debate about the safety of youth tackle football doesn’t figure to disappear any time soon, Sanders’ point is valid: For children to be allowed to play, both they and their parents must be made aware of the risks involved. Most states’ youth-concussion laws already require just that—parents must sign and return a concussion information form before their children can participate in any interscholastic sport, not just football.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.