Lectures about concussions in youth football tend to be a dull compound of science and moralizing. So instead of words, let’s try a picture. Pick up a bobblehead and shake it — hard. Watch the little spring neck whiplash back and forth and hear the toy rattle, and imagine your son’s 7-year-old brain inside the shell. That’s why you need to hand him a flag instead of a helmet. But if you still aren’t convinced, then look at it this way: What was good enough for those Manning boys ought to be good enough for yours.
Archie Manning’s instincts as both a player and a father told him that the gentle crunch of helmeted heads on thin necks is not good for little kids. There were no youth leagues around their neighborhood in New Orleans, and Archie thought that was just as well. “I wasn’t gonna chase off to another parish and drive 25 miles just so a child could play tackle football,” he said in a phone interview. “It wasn’t necessary.”
Manning didn’t specifically forbid his children from playing the game — it just wasn’t available. The result was that Peyton and Eli Manning didn’t play organized tackle until they were in the seventh grade; instead they played backyard football or knee football in the living room, and Eli joined a flag league. “God that’s a great game,” Archie says. “I wish I’d played my whole career in flag football.”
Tom Brady’s father had the very same instinct and withheld his son from tackle until even later, when he was in the ninth grade. Brady Sr. caused a huge stir in 2012 when he told Yahoo’s Michael Silver he’d be “very hesitant” to let a son play at all today, given what he’s learned about concussions. What got less publicity was the fact that, even without the benefit of scientific study, Brady Sr. had the common sense to delay his son’s entry to the game. He looked at his son’s narrow chest and Ichabod neck and decided he wasn’t developed enough to be on the football field. He also forbade Tom from throwing a curveball before he was 14. If he saw his son try a curve, he’d jerk him right off the field, he told him.
Now here is a question. Why not imitate the very best examples instead of the worst ones? Peyton Manning is having the season of his life at 37 after recovering from neck surgery and owns 41 individual NFL records and counting. Tom Brady has played in five Super Bowls. They are smart and skilled and have been almost indefatigably healthy throughout their careers. The blueprint is there, so why not follow it?
Yet despite the strong aroma of coffee right in front of the parental nose, an estimated 3.5 million American families let their kids play pre-high school tackle in 2012. About 250,000 of them play Pop Warner, which, insanely, has a tackle division for 5-year-olds. That’s just a rough count, and it doesn’t include the scores of less organized youth leagues around the country, haphazard organizations with no trainers on the sidelines and amateur coaches who wouldn’t know a concussion from a juice box.
The supporters of youth tackle argue that it gives children the right skills and training, and that those who don’t play will be at a competitive disadvantage later. But the Manning and Brady examples put the lie to those arguments and reveal them for self-serving nonsense. To quote Archie Manning, it’s just “not necessary.” There isn’t a skill that can’t be learned in flag football.
The cresting wave of concussion science only shows what any sensible father already suspects: that a hairless boy playing tackle football experiences some sickening biomechanical effects. The reason is because his body-to-brain ratio resembles exactly that of a bobblehead. While his skull is nearly grown, his brain is still tender and sensitive to trauma, his body is small and his neck is weak. That creates a whiplash bobble effect.
In 2012 a group of researchers at Virginia Tech and Wake Forest put sensors on helmets of 7-year-olds and measured the g-forces of their impacts. They found that their heads accelerating on those thin necks created impacts equal to those of adults, some of them at 40gs.
“It looks like a pillow-fight, but the brain thinks it’s in a war,” says Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard defensive tackle and pro wrestler turned concussion expert. “It’s interesting that we have a national discussion about how dangerous pro and college football is, but we fail to recognize that they are much better protected than children are. Why are we hitting children in the heads hundreds of times a season, without even the protection we give adults?”
Nowinski is president of the Sports Legacy Institute and co-director with Robert Cantu of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, dedicated to researching the long- term effects of repetitive brain trauma. Cantu, author of “Concussions and Our Kids,” has recommended banning tackle football for all children under the age of 14. The suggestion creates firestorms among the youth leaguers, who say Nowinski and Cantu are trying to destroy the game.
“It’s very difficult to have a reasonable discussion around what age is tackle-appropriate because you get pitched into the whole thing of ‘you either love football or hate it, and are trying to kill it,’” Nowinski says. “But we have to have a rational discussion around what’s age-appropriate.”
Nowinski and Cantu do a good job of reframing the discussion in reasonable, level-headed terms — the kind employed by those excellent fathers Archie Manning and Tom Brady Sr. Cantu says the most sensible guideline for your child is simply this: If they don’t have underarm hair yet, then no tackling.
So when your own little bobblehead comes home from school and demands a helmet and shoulder pads, ask yourself a question. “How many times should my kid get hit in the head this fall?” And then hand him a flag.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.