“There is never a good enough reason to hit a child in the head 500 times for a sport.”
The brutal honesty in Chris Nowinski’s words slaps me across the face. A Harvard-educated former pro-wrestler with a PhD in behavioral neuroscience, Nowinski is the founder of Concussion Legacy Foundation and one of the leading voices on post-concussion syndrome and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in football players.
On this night, Nowinski was a guest on my sports radio talk show in Chicago, and what had begun as a conversation about the latest research in CTE in NFL players had quickly morphed into discussion of the drawbacks of youth football. As a mother of two sons, both of whom played youth football, this a touchy subject for me. And as the phone lines light up with parents who want to defend their child’s team, league, coaches, it’s clear I’m not alone.
For the last several years of my son’s travel football career, parents were reassured by various leagues and coaches that safety was their paramount concern. First came the presence of “concussion spotters” on the sidelines. Each child was required to have a baseline cognition test before the season started. Any kid who looked woozy after a hit was immediately pulled from the game and checked by a trainer, and often sent to the E.R., because better safe than sorry. Then came the new “anti-concussion” helmets. For $299, parents could protect their children from hard hits to the head. And really, how could we say no to that? Finally, the safety program Heads Up Football became all the rage.
As parents, we didn’t ask many questions. We ate it all up, desperate to believe that special helmets, more trainers and better tackling techniques would keep our children safe. We wanted someone, anyone, to tell us it was okay for our 6-year-olds to play tackle football.
And yet, Nowinski says, there is nothing that can keep a child safe from repeated sub-concussive blows. “There isn’t evidence that [Heads Up Football] works or that it helps,” he says. “Heads Up was exposed last year in the New York Times for fraudulently promoting that it lowered the risk of concussion, it didn’t. They were essentially lying about the risk mitigation of heads up tackling.” And the special helmets that were supposed to protect our children’s developing brains? Nowinski compares them to filters on cigarettes. “There’s only so much a helmet can do for you.”
As for all those trainers and concussion specialists roaming the sidelines? Nowinski says there’s no reason to think they’ll help reduce the number of adults who wind up with CTE, pointing out that 1 of 5 former players diagnosed with CTE never had a diagnosed concussion. Nowinski’s takeaway is hard to miss: It’s not the concussions that cause CTE, but thousands of blows that don’t result in concussions. “The odds that in a lifetime of 20,000 impacts, five of them are the difference makers … doesn’t make a whole lot of sense given what we know about brain trauma,” he points out.
Luckily, both my sons stopped playing football of their own accord. I didn’t have to make the choice for them, didn’t have to be the bad guy keeping them from their friends and their favorite sport. I do, however, know lots of parents who refuse to make that very difficult decision for their children. “My son has never had a concussion,” mom after mom has told me, by way of explaining the decision to let her child play football. “Anyway, my husband played through college and he’s never had any problems.” “All his friends play.” “The league requires all the coaches to go through concussion training.” The justifications are numerous.
Thinking back to our time in youth football, I know there’s another reason parents are reluctant to pull their children out of tackle football, and Nowinski reads my mind. “Nobody wants to ever believe that they’ve done wrong by their child,” he sympathizes. “The problem with football is that it becomes your social club; once you start, it’s hard to pull out.”
Is it ever. Even though both my sons have moved on to other sports, there’s been nothing to replace the camaraderie of youth football. Maybe it’s those crisp fall mornings, the designated “gopher” moms and dads arriving with their arms loaded down with Starbucks drinks, the tailgates before and after games, the changing leaves crunching under our feet. Maybe it’s just the American love affair with football. Even as I know our family made the right decision for our sons, I still miss those Saturday mornings. I miss the kids. I miss the parents. We thought our neighborhood team would stick together through high school, and that created a deep bond among the parents. Our elementary-school players traipsed around their world together, and the parents did the same. The football team was our world.
Had my sons not declared they were done with football, I don’t know what decision our family would have made. I do know that the decision to leave that social group would have been agonizing. Like many families, ours is composed of two working parents who commute in from the suburbs each day. Between school work, work-work, driving to various sports and activities, pets, extended family visits, it’s hard to find time to socialize. But each Saturday we did have that time with parents we genuinely felt close to and kids we adored at our youth football games.
It’s understandable that parents are reluctant to give up not only something their children enjoy, but possibly their only meaningful social interaction with other adults. The alternative, though, is to unnecessarily subject a child with a developing brain to repeated hits to the head. As the evidence of CTE as a cumulative disease continues to mount, it’s a decision parents need to take seriously. Nowinski’s Concussion Legacy Foundation explains CTE as follows on its website:
“The best available evidence tells us that CTE is caused by repetitive hits to the head sustained over a period of years. . . . And it’s not just concussions: The best available evidence points toward sub-concussive impacts, or hits to the head that don’t cause full-blown concussions, as the biggest factor.”
That statement is backed up by a 2016 study in the Journal of Neurotrauma, which found that the total number of hits to the head in youth and high school football was more dispositive of a CTE diagnosis later in life than were concussions. For this reason, Nowinski encourages parents to enroll their kids in flag-football leagues until high school.
“Sports are great,” he acknowledges, “but kids shouldn’t be playing the adult versions of the sport. And no sports for children should have repetitive brain trauma. So I would never have a kid head a ball before high school. I would never put [a child] in a checking league in ice hockey before high school, and I wouldn’t let him play tackle football before high school.”
I think back often on some of the hits my son, a fearless safety, put on other children, and my stomach roils. He doled out more than one concussion before he even hit junior high, something our family used to joke about. Now, as study after study ties repetitive hits to the head to CTE, I’m horrified by the cavalier way I celebrated while my child’s brain bounced around inside his $299 helmet. I worry that he will suffer repercussions for my own ignorance down the road.
What’s clear is that parents can no longer look at CTE as something that happens only to NFL players. We can’t pretend it’s tied only to concussions. We can’t look the other way as study after study finds the more years a child plays football, the greater his chance of CTE. We can no longer allow ourselves the luxury of believing that athletic trainers or expensive helmets or new tackling techniques are enough to protect our children from brain trauma.
“How can I tell him he’s not allowed to play football?” one mother asked me of her 9-year old son, incredulous at that thought.
Knowing what we now know about youth football, how can she not?