Parents must consider the risk of head injury when they sign their children up to play for sports. Every year thousands of children play in youth football leagues, many with dreams to play in college or the NFL. The last couple of years, however, have brought a lot of bad news about head injuries for football. U.S. emergency departments treat an estimated 135,000 children ages 5 to 18 for sports-related brain injuries every year. Most of these injuries are concussions, and the child has a full recovery but when a child experiences multiple concussions it is not known how the brain will be affected long term. It is possible that even a set of mild concussions can put a person at risk for early onset dementia, Parkinson’s disease and other neurological disorders that require neurosurgery.
The numbers are significant; 25,000 kids stopped playing the sport between 2010 and 2012, which is a 9.5% decline in participation. Many medical experts believe that the number one reason for the decline in numbers is due to parental concerns over head injuries.
Pop Warner, the largest youth football organization in the United States is taking action to curb the risk of head injury among its players. The first step taken was to cut back significantly on tackling during practice. They have also partnered with the NFL and USA Football to endorse the “Heads Up” program which is designed to teach proper tackling techniques to children. This is a tactic long taken by the youth hockey programs in Canada. The idea is that when tackling skills are taught correctly, the sport can be played as its meant to be without as much risk for injury.
Some experts believe that Pop Warner and USA Football are in denial about the real reasons for the decline in youth participation. Officially, these organizations blame participation decline on a downturn in the economy and on athletes being pressured to specialize in a single sport. Football, however, has become a year round sport so it seems unlikely that economic factors are really playing a role in the decline. It seems clear to most that the horrific news coverage about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease caused by multiple blows to the head like those received in long-term football play is more than likely the cause.
It is noteworthy and relevant that the NFL recently settled a class-action lawsuit for $765 million to compensate over 4,500 victims of head injuries from concussions incurred while playing football. Although the plaintiffs argued that the NFL had concealed a link between playing football and brain damage, the NFL refused to admit misconduct. One could argue, however, that by settling for millions of dollars they were admitting fault without saying so.
There are hall of fame football players such as Lem Barney who have publicly stated that they would choose not to have played football if they could go back. The two recent deaths of Mike Webster and Seau were attributed to brain injuries caused by football. It is hard for anyone, especially parents caring for their children, to ignore these facts when deciding on which sport to let your child play.
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