Student Well-Being

Majority of Americans Think Tackle Football Is Unsafe Before Age 14

By Bryan Toporek — July 20, 2016 3 min read
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Nearly four-fifths of Americans believe it’s inappropriate to introduce tackling into football for children under the age of 14, and a majority believe it’s unsafe for children to participate in tackle football prior to high school, according to a new poll released Wednesday from the University of Massachusetts-Lowell’s Center for Public Opinion.

The survey assessed a variety of sports-safety views from 1,000 American adults, including what sorts of activities were appropriate for children of a certain age. A whopping 78 percent of respondents deemed it appropriate to introduce tackling into football no earlier than the age of 14, while 20 percent suggested it’s never appropriate at any age. There was a significant divide in responses based on gender, as nearly 50 percent of female respondents said tackle football should be limited to those ages 18 or above (or never), while only 36 percent of males believed the same.

When asked whether tackle football was a “safe activity for children” before reaching high school, 63 percent found that to be “probably false” or “certainly false.” Again, a notable gender gap arose: 68 percent of women sided on the side of probably or certainly false, while only 59 percent of men did the same. Nearly half of the survey respondents believed tackle football to be probably or certainly unsafe during high school, too.

Football wasn’t the only sport which respondents expressed concerns about, however. Sixty percent of respondents believe heading the ball in soccer to be unsafe for children prior to reaching high school. That view was largely shared among both men and women, as 57 percent of the former and 62 percent of the latter came down against headers before high school.

“This poll confirms a growing public awareness that concussions can result in CTE, a degenerative brain disease, and that CTE is now viewed as a serious public health issue,” said associate professor Jeffrey Gerson, a UMass Lowell political science faculty member who worked on the poll, in a statement. The poll also confirms that the public believes that one of the greatest threats to athletes is at the youth level. The public’s negative view of tackle football for children under 14 and heading a soccer ball in youth soccer may lead to further changes in these sports that can have a ripple effect on sports for older children, especially at the high school level.”

The poll also gauged respondents’ views on how well certain sports organizations have responded to “new evidence about concussions and brain injuries in sports.” While a majority of respondents pleaded ignorance when asked about their local school or school district, Pop Warner Football, USA Hockey and the U.S. Soccer Federation, the “not enough” group nearly doubled the “appropriate changes” group for each organization. Thirty percent said their local school or district hadn’t done enough compared to 16 percent who did, while Pop Warner and USA Hockey only received 11 and 12 percent of support in the “appropriate changes” category, respectively, compared to 25 and 30 percent who said they hadn’t done enough.

Back in November, as part of a resolution to a lawsuit over its handling of youth concussions, the U.S. Soccer Federation did recommend that soccer players ages 10 and under be prohibited from heading the ball, while those ages 11 through 13 should only be allowed to do so during practice. The prior year, a group of former U.S. women’s soccer stars called for all middle school soccer teams and under-14 youth soccer leagues to ban heading in an attempt to reduce the risk of concussions. Pop Warner sprang to action back in 2012, too, implementing a ban on coaches utilizing full-speed, head-on blocking and tackling drills with players lined up more than three yards apart, along with a restriction on the amount of practice time coaches can use for full-contact drills.

In the book “Concussions and Our Kids,” Dr. Robert Cantu recommended prohibiting children under the age of 14 from playing tackle football, body-checking in ice hockey, or heading soccer balls. As he explained in a 2012 interview with Education Week, children below that age are “bobble-head dolls with big heads and weak necks,” making them more vulnerable to head trauma.

Based on the results of the UMass Lowell poll, it appears as though the American public has received the message loud and clear.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.