I would know — I’m a CTE expert and former pro-athlete.
Chris Nowinski earned a PhD in behavioral neuroscience after concussions suffered as a Harvard football player and professional wrestler ended his athletic career. He is the co-founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation.
Football is the most popular sport to watch in America. More than half of Americans identify as fans of the NFL, college football, or both. It’s also a popular recreational sport: as many as 2.5 million American children, primarily boys ages 5 to 13, play tackle football each fall.
Part of football’s popularity is its inherent violence. The most dangerous part of playing football comes from unseen injuries: damage to the brain caused by repeated tackling throughout the course of the game. Football is now known to be so destructive to the brain that healthy NFL players are retiring in their prime, turning down millions of dollars to lower their risk of developing brain diseases associated with repetitive head impacts.
But as a neuroscientist and a former college football player, I’m most concerned with the two-thirds of American tackle football players who are children and particularly susceptible to harm. The brain changes tremendously on the journey from birth to adulthood. Any form of trauma can change the brain, and thus change the child.
I think in 50 years, we will look back and be horrified that we allowed young children to play tackle football and other collision sports like soccer with heading, or ice hockey with checking, or boxing. The science is clearer than ever: Exposure data shows children as young as 9 are getting hit in the head more than 500 times in one season of youth tackle football. That should not feel normal to us. Think of the last time, outside of sports, you allowed your child to get hit hard in the head 25 times in a day. Better yet, when was the last time you were hit hard in the head?
Scientists are now beginning to understand the long-term consequences of all those hits. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, is a degenerative brain disease that was once thought to be confined only to “punch-drunk” boxers. Yet in the past decade, Boston University and Veterans Affairs researchers have diagnosed CTE in American football, soccer, ice hockey, and rugby players, along with other collision sport athletes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the only known risk factor for CTE is repetitive head impacts like those experienced in many contact sports.
An analysis of the first 211 football players diagnosed with CTE at Boston University found those who started tackle football before age 12 could have a 13-year-earlier onset of the cognitive, behavioral, and mood symptoms associated with CTE. Athletes who played contact sports for more than nine years had a six times greater risk of developing Lewy body disease, a cause of Parkinson’s, than those who played eight or fewer years.
Our society is committed to protecting children — that’s why we ban smoking, remove children from homes with lead paint, and force parents to put their children in car seats. We should also protect children from unnecessary brain damage in youth sports.
Luckily, the fix is remarkably easy. We just need to change some rules. Change youth tackle football to flag football. Stop asking players to ram a flying soccer ball with their forehead. At the Concussion Legacy Foundation, we simply say don’t hit kids.
There is some good news. A few years ago, US Soccer bowed to pressure and banned heading before 11 (though 14 would be better). But youth tackle football remains untouched, and children are still being aggressively recruited into youth tackle football as young as age 5. Despite its dangers, the NFL subsidizes youth tackle football, likely because it has data showing that 60 percent of its die-hard fans begin following the sport in elementary school. “Nothing attaches a young person to a sport more than playing,” said an original board member of USA Football, an organization created by the NFL to promote youth football.
We reached out to the NFL for comment, and they did not provide one.
So while the industry fights to maintain the status quo, parents have to ask hard questions when their child wants to play tackle football to be like their NFL heroes. Are the benefits of youth tackle football worth risking the lifelong health of your brain? A better question — can a child make that choice?