Our ten year old son absolutely loves football. While our other kids have gravitated toward other sports, this one has always been drawn to football. While he enjoys the physical aspects, he’s also attracted to the mental aspects of the game.
The degree to which he analyzes games is really remarkable, and it’s a blast to watch them with him. He’s quick to recognize offensive formations, the subtleties of various defensive schemes, etc.
He plays pickup games every day during recess, carries a football wherever he goes, and spends hours in the backyard honing his throws. Given his passion, we relented last summer and let him sign up for the local rec football league.
Truth be told, he’d already been working on us for several years. Having played high school football myself, I was generally okay with letting him play, but my wife took more convincing. She was worried about injuries, but eventually relented.
In light of recent events, however, we’re re-thinking our stance. Whereas we once worried about physical injuries — the bumps, bruises, sprains, and strains that are part of the game — it’s become clear that the real risk is something far more insidious. Brain trauma.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re aware that such trauma has resulted in an epidemic of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in former football players. The end result has been Alzheimer’s-like dementia at a much higher than expected rate, and at a shockingly young age.
Don’t get me wrong… I’m not assuming that by letting our son play Pop Warner football that we’re charting a course for NFL stardom. But it’s become increasingly clear that the affects of such trauma begin to accrue quite early, even in the absence of concussion-inducing hits.
In fact, there is mounting evidence that sub-concussive impacts — the sort that occur on nearly every play at all levels — can contribute to substantively to the sort of damage associated with CTE.
So while the worst cases are in former NFL players who suffered years and years of concussions, there’s reason to believe that even those that played for less time and at lower levels are increasing their risk of developing brain-related maladies.
Yes, I loved playing high school football myself, but… Having now witnessed the devastation of the early stages of dementia firsthand in an elderly parent, I can honestly say that no sport is worth increasing the risk of that fate later in life.
If you’re interested in reading more about the issue, here are some good articles from the popular press:
- Offensive Play (The New Yorker)
- The National Brain Damage League (Slate Magazine)
- The People V. Football (GQ)
- The Big Idea: Brain Trauma (National Geographic)
You can, of course, also find plenty of scholarly literature on the subject by searching PubMed. Click this link for a sample of what’s out there.
Food for thought.