Do We Need to Rethink Allowing Kids To Play Tackle Football?

Scientific Research Is Telling Us Yes


It would seem that most of the civilized world is far removed, and far more advanced, understanding, and caring than Sparta, the city-state in ancient Greece. Spartan culture, education, and training were primarily focused on building and sustaining a strong military. 

When he was seven years old, a Spartan boy was taken from his family and commenced what would be about 11 years of intense physical and martial training and preparation for the life of a solider. This training and prep were exhausting, painful, demanding, and required a young man to be subject to extreme deprivation. 

It worked, of course, for a while. Sparta was the supreme military power in the region. Yet Sparta would go the way of almost all societies and nations once powerful, and it fell. 

In modern America, vast populations of boys and young men are more pampered than challenged; they are more protected than subject to the harshness of competition. We surely don't have what in Sparta was universal male conscription.

But I do think that in some ways we promote and push our young people, especially boys, into athletic activities that are dangerous and which may result in chronic illness and injury, especially as it relates to neurological and cognitive functioning. 

I think there needs to be a strong review and reassessment of youth tackle football. I don't have the answers – but I know it is warranted to take a good and focused and hard look to determine if we are starting kids in tackle football at too young an age.

My father coached football at Oliver Ames High School for 23 years, 20 of those as head coach. Yes, teams he mentored won championships and finished undefeated; my father is in the Massachusetts High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame. 

Before he coached, and before he was a track star at the University of Notre Dame, he was high school standout at running back and was major college recruit in the sport. He ran summer football camps at Stonehill College. He loved football, and through his involvement as a player, coach, administrator (my dad was the long-time athletic director at OA), and operator of football camps, he sought to honor the sport. 

He also didn't want youth football in Easton. He thought that kids should start playing football when they were freshmen in high school. He believed that boys – and back then, there were next to no girls anywhere wanting to play football – were not ready physically for the game until they reached about the age of 14. 

I don't know if my dad's position was inspired and his discretion on the matter directed so much in a concern for young people – and young and developing brains – being put at risk for concussions. But I have to think that this concern was in the mix. 

Let me say this, though, as well; provided that victory in a football game in which my father was coaching an OA football team was in doubt, he would enthusiastically direct the OA players to visit and impose relentless, controlled, and regulated (regulated meaning “within the rules”) violence on the opponent.  My father believed in winning, and he understood that football is at its essence a violent sport, and that winning the violence enabled victory.

My dad also had immense respect and held immense gratitude for those started football in Easton, who nurtured it, who built it. He may have thought the kids were too young to play the game, but he also knew that those founders of youth football in town believed otherwise, were motivated to create the program for the right reasons, and sought to improve the lives of boys and girls by providing them an option to play tackle football on an organized level.

Good and caring people can disagree on things. 

And on the matter of being motivated for the right reasons in developing a youth football program, for an example of a youth football pioneer who had the right priorities and values in order, I point to Charles C. “Budgie” Campbell (OA '59), a member of the OAHS Athletic Hall of Fame, and a standout college lineman who also played a year of professional football for the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. 

Budgie was one of the people who started and guided in its early years the Mansfield Pop Warner program, which became, and remains, one of the best anywhere. And when people would commend Budgie on the success of the league, or how well its teams were doing against other towns, Budgie would emphasize and make clear that the main tribute to the Mansfield program is that kids playing in it did not get hurt. 

Nice guy, smart guy, that Budgie.

Probably starting in third or fourth grade, and up until my freshman year at OA, when I played freshman football – my only year of organized football – I played pick-up tackle football with my friends.  Yet precisely because we didn't have helmets, you steered away from head collisions.  So, in a way, playing without a helmet reduced the opportunity for head injury.

Science and research are telling us that even a fully formed and mature brain – encased in a skull further encased in a football helmet – can easily become injured, and is irreparably harmed, and becomes disposed to creeping degeneration, from repeated slamming and concussing (appropriate, that verb, huh?). 

What happens when a child of seven or eight … or 12 or 13 … is cracking helmets? 

Perhaps the most revealing and insightful and helpful research done today on brain concussions, injury, and disease is being done at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) at Boston University. Encephalopathy refers to diseases and disorders of the brain. 

CSTE conducts its research on the brains of the deceased who either themselves willed, or their families donated, their brains for research. 

CSTE has studied and tested the brains of 19 former NFL players – with 18 of those brains showing evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). 

Because we are learning more and more about – and that learning is being publicized – what happens to the brain of a person who plays tackle football for many years, authorities, coaches, and administrators of the sport, at all levels, have been forced to reevaluate and make changes to the rules, procedures, conditions under which athletes practice and compete. 

Yet a need for asking these simple and penetrating questions remains: 1.) Is enough being done?; 2.) How much of the language of change and concern of those overseeing the sport is merely window dressing and keeping up appearances? 

Boston Globe columnist, Yvonne Abraham, took on the youth football/concussion matter in an excellent piece, titled, “Ban tackle football for players under 14,” which ran in yesterday's paper. She mentions CSTE in the column. Here is an excerpt from the column in which Ms. Abraham repeats the column title as a solution to protecting the brains of young gridiron athletes: 

There is only one way to protect them: Ban tackle football for players under 14. 

This seems to many like an excessive, even un-American, reaction. Surely there is a less nanny-state-ish way to protect kids? 

Not according to Robert Cantu, a clinical professor of neurosurgery at Boston University Medical School, and co-director of the school’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. 

There is no way to make tackle football safe for youngsters,” says Cantu …. Because of the way they’re built, players under 14 are sitting ducks when it comes to head trauma. Their brains don’t contain as much myelin — the protein that insulates and protects nerve fibers — as adults. While their heads are almost fully grown, their bodies are much smaller and weaker, creating a “bobble-head” effect: Their necks just aren’t strong enough to protect them. Kids also aren’t as well coordinated as adults, and have slower reaction times, so they’re less able to evade hits, or brace themselves.  

Click here to read Ms. Abraham's full column. 

Banning football for players under 14 does sound like a fairly harsh remedy. 

I don't know if there can be some sort of way to develop something that would be a moderated – less violent – form of tackle football for those under 14. 

Then again, maybe making tackle football off limits until a player reaches high school is the way to go. 

Because I am absolutely sure of this – whether or not you are wearing a helmet, getting repeatedly banged and hit in the head is not good … not good at all.

HeatherB December 12, 2012 at 04:06 PM
Some of our country’s most ardent defenders of player safety, like Dr. Stanley Herring (Lystedt Law progenitor) and Dr. Gerry Gioia of Children’s National Medical Center, endorse USA Football’s safer and better tackling techniques, which are changing tackle terminology and instruction for the betterment of our kids. Better tackling, concussion awareness and management, coaching education and proper equipment fitting are the key components of USA Football's Heads Up Football program, which also aims to eventually have a Player Safety Coach in every youth league. Parents can learn more about the innovative steps USA Football is taking to address player safety at http://bit.ly/PPBmey or download the Heads Up Football app at http://usafootball.com/mobile.


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