A new study conducted by brain researchers at Boston University, was recently published in the Annals of Neurology that has many parents wondering about letting their kids play tackle football. The study revealed that children who begin playing full-contact tackle football before the age of 12 were more likely to develop many of the cognitive and emotional symptoms that have been closely associated with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. CTE is a degenerative brain disease that has been blamed for the early death of lifelong football players, including some in the NFL.
Studying the Brains of Football Players
For the study, researchers took a close look at the brains of 214 deceased football players from both the amateur and professional ranks. The average age was 51. Of those players, 68 played in the NFL, 103 played through college, but not professionally, and 43 played only through high school. Of these 214 players, fully 211 of them were afflicted with some level of CTE, which can be caused by repetitive hits to the head. According to the researchers, those who began playing tackle football before the age of 12 tended to develop the cognitive and emotional symptoms associated with CTE on average about 13 years sooner than those who started playing after the age of 12.
The findings in the study will almost certainly reignite and likely exacerbate the debate over when, or even if, children should be allowed to start playing tackle football. The lead researcher for this latest study, Dr. Ann McKee of Boston University, made special note of the drastic change between those who started after age 12 and those who started before. She suggested that a child’s brain is developing rapidly between the ages of eight and 12, which could be the problem. At that age range, kids are developing new networks and they are learning to prune various connection. At that point in their developing, their brain is working to figure things out and grow and change.
According to telephone interviews and online surveys, researchers discovered that players in all three groups who began their participation in youth football before the age of 12 had a twofold “risk of problems with behavioral regulation, apathy and executive function” and a threefold risk of “clinically elevated depression scores.”
In Line With Previous Studies
The results of this latest study seems to be consistent with earlier findings by the same researchers, whose previous work was centered primarily on NFL retirees. That study looked at 111 brains of retired NFL players and found CTE in 110 of them. Researchers found that NFL retirees who started playing football before reaching the age of 12 suffered from a diminished mental flexibility when compared to those who started playing at the age of 12 or older. In another study, doctors at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine used advanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology to discover that boys between the ages of 8 and 13 who played just a single season of tackle football suffered diminished brain function in various areas of their brains.
While the NFL long denied any sort of link between playing football and brain damage, in recent years, the league has been pushing for the adoption of safer tackling techniques and changing the rules to reduce the number of head-to-head collisions. The league has even taken to promoting flag football as a safer alternative to tackle football, which seems to acknowledge that parents are beginning to worry more about the dangers of the sport.
Participation is Falling
It is clear many are turning away from the sport. Since 2009, participation in tackle football has fallen by nearly 20 percent among boys ages 6 to 12. Also, schools nationwide have canceled their tackle football programs due to safety concerns and/or a shortage of players, as large numbers of kids have shifted their participation to other sports, like soccer, lacrosse, baseball and even flag football.
In addition, Pop Warner, which is by far the most well-established and largest youth football organization in the country, has reduced the level of contact in practice, which is where most head hits occur in youth football, and they have changed many of the game’s rules. For instance, they have banned kickoffs, which is considered among the most dangerous plays in the game. The organization believes the sport has changed for the better for most youth players, but they have promised to have their medical advisory committee look at the latest studies and decide how they can make things even safer. Pop Warner currently faces a class-action lawsuit that asserts that the organization ignored the risks of head trauma and knowingly placed young players at excess risk.
Back in 2016, the Ivy League eliminated tackling at practices during the regular season, a decision that was similar to that made by the professional Canadian Football League in 2017. USA Football has introduced a 7-on-7 version of football that includes a number of head safety measures, including having players star in a two-point stance, which is designed to reduce the risk of hits to the head.