This I Believe | Contact football too risky for youth

February 1, 2014 

Our 10-year-old son has a variety of hobbies, including cello, chess and swimming.

But his favorite subject is the NFL. He’s learned professional football is a universal language among the males in his life. Whether discussing Red Grange or Tom Brady, his eyes light up.

“What if Eli Manning had stayed with the Chargers? What if the American Football League had never merged with the National Football League?”

These are the sorts of questions he ponders over breakfast. For all of his interest in the sport, his on-field experience is limited to touch football with friends and flag football at the Y. Chances are, if I tell him he can play tackle football next year, he will suit up in a minute.

That is not going to happen.

I grew up next door to Owen Thomas, the University of Pennsylvania football captain who took his life in 2010. Though he never sustained a concussion, postmortem research on his brain tissue revealed his brain was riddled with injuries that collectively caused chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

While USA Football, the NCAA and the NFL promote their Heads Up program as a way to improve the game’s safety, the fact is that even subtle traumatic injuries go unrecognized and have a detrimental cumulative effect.

For children playing tackle football, the risks outweigh the benefits.

On the risk side, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates U.S. emergency rooms treat more than 170,000 sports and recreation-related traumatic brain injuries among children and adolescents each year. For 10- to 19-year-old boys, these injuries occur most often while playing football.

On the reward side, the reality is that most high school players will not go on to receive football scholarships. And very few of those who do will be drafted into the NFL and offered multimillion-dollar contracts.

Parents must weigh this reality against the risk of potentially permanent injuries.

Our young children are particularly susceptible to these types of injuries. Their necks and trunks are not as developed as adult athletes. There is often a disparity in size between children of the same age due to differences in physical maturity. Children also lack the techniques and training of seasoned athletes.

What will it take to make football an acceptably safe sport?

Lawsuits, baseline concussion testing, concussion in sports laws, improved head gear and more awareness help, but they are not enough. Unless and until a moratorium is pronounced on youth tackle football, the choice rests squarely on the shoulders of parents.

Before we allow our sons to pad up, we must think carefully about how it will affect their health and safety.

And what about the future of football — the leagues, the fans, the school spirit, the money?

Frankly, I don’t care. None of that is worth watching my son tackled and carted off the field. None of it is worth the potential of permanent injuries to his brain or body.

I believe in a moratorium on youth contact football.

Lara Dolphin lives in Hollidaysburg. Her essay aired Jan. 23 on WPSU.

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