For parents of children who play or may someday play tackle football, a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association has raised serious concern about the long-term neurological damage that can be sustained from the sport. In 2016, the NFL acknowledged the connection between chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, and football. The neurodegenerative disease is most commonly found in individuals who’ve experienced repeated head trauma, with symptoms including aggression, depression, memory loss, impulse control issues, anxiety and suicidal behavior. CTE is officially diagnosed by autopsy, and the study found 87 percent of 202 American football players, across all levels and the last several decades, had CTE. While CTE was most common for NFL players, 21 percent of the individuals who’d only competed at the high school level also had mild CTE.
Locally, the Edmond YMCA reported a decrease in kids registered to play tackle football, mirroring the national trend of 14 percent lower participation since the sport’s peak in 2009.
According to the study, the longer a player is exposed to football, the greater the risk of the disease, which Dr. Brian Coleman, sports medicine program director for the University of Oklahoma’s Department of Family Medicine, said could impact the age at which parents allow their children to play the contact sport.
“I think it likely will adjust how much we let our kids be exposed to head hits,” Coleman said.
Dr. Erica Faulconer, an Oklahoma City-based pediatrician, recommends youth wait until at least middle school to play tackle football but preferably until they’ve reached puberty.
“Football started after the Civil War for adult men to still feel like they were doing something competitive and physical,” said Faulconer. “Kids can get the same type of competitive spirit through flag football.”
Coleman, a former football player himself, said playing the game safely requires appropriate teaching and practicing methods. The Edmond YMCA, offering tackle football starting in third grade, promotes safety by requiring supervised practices, reducing the number of players on the field and positions of direct contact, placing weight limits on ball carriers, teaching participants safe hitting and requiring coaches and staff be trained in concussion and return-to-play protocols.
Faulconer encourages parents to get to know a potential football coach’s methodology and level of aggression in play before committing a child to a team and said although protective equipment continues to evolve, there is false confidence in its ability to prevent head trauma.
“Helmets prevent fractures, but the brain is still hitting the side of the skull,” said Faulconer.
Rugby, hockey, lacrosse and soccer players also are prone to head trauma and parents may mistake concussion symptoms for typical childhood behaviors. Vomiting, confusion and headaches are obvious signs, but some youth may simply feel more tired than usual, have difficulty paying attention or display emotional changes. The online concussion assessment tool SCAT3 and Child-SCAT3 can help medical professionals, coaching and training staff and parents determine whether a child sustained a concussion. After a concussion, Faulconer said complete cognitive rest is imperative.
“Even with minor symptoms, you should wait 24 hours until you do anything and that includes things like video games, reading, taking a test or being in a loud environment,” said Faulconer.