No athlete is immune from the risk of sustaining a concussion, but contact sports represent the area of highest risk. In the United States, the sport associated with the greatest number of traumatic brain injuries (e.g. sports concussion) is tackle football. Multiple research studies have linked head trauma sustained during contact football with brain disease. These findings beg the question: What is it about football that makes it worth the risk of developing brain disease at some point during life?
Some doctors suggest that protecting kids from a sports concussion is equally, if not, more important than protecting them from the dangers of drinking alcohol, using tobacco products, and overeating. Who can argue? During adolescent and teenage years the human brain is not fully developed. Yet, it is during this time that kids are introduced to tackle football and invited to play it. The cumulative effect of concussions and /or sub-concussive hits sustained from adolescence through a high school, college or professional career can be devastating and include the loss of normal brain function limiting the capacity to think, remember, and communicate in an effective manner that is required for a productive lifestyle.
Granted, certain aspects of football are appealing in terms of learning about physical fitness, teamwork, competition, strategy, and good sportsmanship. However, other sports (e.g. basketball, baseball, tennis, volleyball, track & field) offer the same benefits without incurring the high risk of concussions and injury to the brain as seen in football. Helmets, no matter how expensive, do not prevent concussions. In fact, no method exists to completely eliminate the risk of a sports concussion during athletic activity, especially football.
Concussions can result from a number of mechanisms, not just by a direct hit to the head. Regardless of the mechanism, the medical research has irrefutably demonstrated a connection between recurrent concussions and brain injury. Some people may argue that the majority of concussions are “mild” and resolve within 1-2 weeks. In a sense those factors erroneously convey a feeling that getting a head injury is not a big deal. The subjective classification of severity (e.g. mild) and the time course for resolution should not allow us to be complacent or to downplay the significance of any brain injury and its long-term impact on the overall health of athletes.
The decision of whether kids should play tackle football or not is one for parents to make using the current information on injuries relevant to the sport. The primary goal of sports medicine doctors as well as parents, coaches, and school administrators who oversee youth athletic programs is to keep athletes safe. Part of achieving that goal is to provide appropriate education on injuries incurred during the sport of choice. In the case of football, since no means exists by which to prevent a sports concussion, education is crucial to making a responsible and competent decision about participation.
Below you will find resources that provide general information on sports concussions. Please read the material, ask your doctor questions, talk to your kids, and then make an informed decision.
- HEADS UP to Brain Injury Awareness
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons – Sports Concussions
3. New York Times – Brain Injury in Players of the National Football League
- Sports Injury Forum – Concussions in Athletes