Dear Parents of Young Football Players,
We need to be vigilant in all aspects of our children’s lives, including sports. I had no problem when my eight year old wanted to play football, assuming that our local Junior Peewees would provide him with a gradual introduction to the sport. Was I wrong! The first practice consisted of a warm-up jog around the field followed by full contact drills, during which coaches yelled “Shake it off” at kids who didn’t get up immediately. I witnessed one player bring his fist up under a team-mate’s face guard, which caused the victim’s neck to snap back and sent him to the ground flat on his back. The coaches didn’t seem phased. I was horrified. Because the coaching was unsystematic and disregarded safety I had my son choose an alternative sport. I’m not trying to tell you that all football coaches and leagues are the same, but I am pointing out the need for attentiveness.
I don’t think I’m over-protective – among other things, my son went on to play hockey for seven years - but I do believe in being as informed as possible. Seeing my neighbor taking her eight year old to football practice last week reminded me that there’s an increasing amount of information available regarding the risks of playing football at an early age. For instance, a recent New York Times article mentions evidence being presented in a lawsuit against Pop-Warner, indicating that two youth players were posthumously diagnosed as having Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. CTE is a life-changing condition, described by Boston University as, “Brain degeneration [which] is associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia.” The dangers to young players were underlined in a study, which found that, “Former NFL players who started playing tackle football before the age of 12 had a higher risk of altered brain development compared to those who started the sport when they were older.” CTE is linked to head impacts, which are a common occurrence for young players: “Pee Wee and Pop Warner players sustain from 240 to 585 head hits per season between ages 9 and 12, a critical period of brain development.” All this is crucial information that kids probably don’t look for, but which parents have a responsibility to consider when making decisions with their children about what sports they will play.
As public awareness of CTE has grown, the NFL has publicized its own answer to head injuries - “Heads Up Football” - through its youth division, USA Football. I viewed the publicity video, which implies that Heads Up Football brings innovative safety measures to the game. However, I found that information from other sources indicates that USA Football’s early safety-gain figures were inaccurate, and that its coaches and athletic directors are still unaware of the actual statistics. It seems to me that there remains a threat to children’s long-term health, and that parents have an obligation to use multiple sources to research the facts for themselves.
I turned to the opinions of professionals. Firstly, former Denver Bronco Nate Jackson had a negative view of Heads Up, which he described as an impractical “illusion.” He continued, “The tackling techniques are laughable when applied to game and practice situations, with players moving at high speeds and colliding from different angles with their heads.” Another experienced voice, Mike Ditka, former NFL player and coach, was asked if he would allow an eight year old to play football. Ditka replied “Nope, that’s sad, I wouldn’t, and my whole life was football. I think the risk is worse than the reward.” If these experts express concern over kids’ involvement in tackle football, doesn’t this indicate that as parents we need to seriously check out the implications for our own potential-filled kids?