So, Whaddya Think?
Football Puts Children’s Brains at Risk
David Figurski and Donna O’Donnell Figurski
Lack of awareness of new knowledge has allowed society to continue what some of us now know to be dangerous practices with respect to children. To understand what we mean, watch these short videos of children practicing or playing American football (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).
The danger to the brains of children in the videos is readily apparent to us (video, story). Parents often believe a brain injury is rare. But the evidence indicates otherwise. The hundreds of sub-concussive hits that a player of American football receives each season can result in the degenerative brain disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE can lead to loss of memory, loss of cognitive ability, dementia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), aggressive behavior, depression, and suicidal thoughts. It has been seen in the brains of high school football players. In fact, individuals who started playing organized American football at a young age seem to have a higher rate of CTE.
Recently, Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered CTE in an American football player by studying the brain of Hall-of-Fame center Mike Webster, was the author of a recent New York Times Op-Ed entitled Don’t Let Kids Play Football. In an interview for zap2it.com, Dr. Omalu said, “As a modern society it’s our duty to protect our most vulnerable, most precious gifts of life: our children. This is where I stand.”
(We highly recommend your seeing the newly released movie Concussion, which will bring about more awareness of the danger to the brain from playing American football. The movie tells the true story of how the National Football League – NFL – tried to dismiss Dr. Bennet Omalu’s discovery of the connection of brain disease and the playing of American football. Former players are suing the NFL, claiming that the NFL knew of the dangers, but did not inform the players.)
In the documentary Head Games (online and free), we are reminded that children are not miniature adults. A child’s head is larger than an adult’s in proportion to his or her body. The neck muscles are not proportionately stronger, so a child’s head is more vulnerable than is an adult’s head. Brain development continues until at least age 14. (Some neurologists think brain development may continue longer.) In addition, the neurons in a developing brain are not yet fully myelinated. Recent research has shown that a concussion in a child impairs brain function for two years. The risk to the brain is the major reason why US Soccer banned heading for children 10 and under.
On August 16th, Donna conducted a radio interview with George Visger, a former defensive lineman for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers on her radio show, “Another Fork in the Road,” on the Brain Injury Radio Network. Visger stated that youth football might ultimately end because of the eventual high cost of liability insurance (minutes 30:25-33:45; we think you will also find the intervals 5:40-15:55 and 39:40-42:25 interesting because of their contents – children and football). Dr. Omalu, the discoverer of CTE in an American football player, says in Frontline’s documentary The League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis that he was told if 10% of mothers think playing football is too dangerous, it will mean the end of football.
The consequences of a brain injury can be especially devastating, even fatal, to a young player (video 1, video 2, story of the suicide of a teenage football player). The risk of brain injury from high-impact sports, especially American football, is significant even for adults, but an adult can make his or her own decision to play. In contrast, children rely on parents and coaches. No parent would deliberately put a child’s life-trajectory at risk, but what if the parent lacks awareness? The good news is that apparently society’s awareness is growing quickly. Peter Landesman, the director of Concussion, said that Pop Warner football enrollment is down by more than 30%. (Pop Warner football is for children aged 5 to 16.) The movie Concussion will further increase society’s awareness of the danger of concussions and sub-concussive hits, show what CTE is, tell Dr. Bennet Omalu’s story of his discovery of the relationship of CTE and American football, and show Dr. Omalu’s struggle with the NFL.
It is also the brain-injury community’s responsibility to speak out to show society how life-altering a brain injury is.
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