Football is violent. Lethal. We play the game and put our future bodies and minds at risk. Still, we celebrate football. It’s the sport I’ve praised, though perhaps from some misguided longing to stay close to those who are gone. We scream, cheer, and cry for our combatants caught in its vicious throes. We hold our breath whenever our warriors wobble but always crave more. Football brutalizes its participants.
And somehow, our kids still play the game.
In January, researchers at Boston University’s School of Medicine published a report suggesting a link between youth football and diminished future brain function in former NFL players. Those players in the study who started playing tackle football before the age of 12 performed “significantly worse” in areas of verbal IQ, memory impairment, and decision-making than those who began playing later. The conclusion from this study is that exposure to repeated head impacts playing football before age 12 may “increase the risk of later-life cognitive impairment” (ESPN, Tom Farrey). As Dr. Bob Stern states in a Radio Boston interview, “there is a period of childhood before age 12 that is a window of vulnerability for brain development.”
Now, there are limitations to the study. The sample size is small, and the subjects all had a minimum of two years’ experience in the NFL, which means they are more likely to have accumulated more hits in their life than someone who stopped playing much younger. More research is unquestionably needed in this area and it must focus on a larger, more diversified population with varying levels of football participation.
Still, we must ask some basic questions. Do the collisions and repetitive head impacts experienced playing tackle football cause brain trauma? Yes. Does current research suggest a connection between playing youth tackle football and suffering future cognitive impairment? Yes. Do youth players experience similar magnitude of hits as those absorbed by high school and adult players? Yes. Are children’s brains developing the connectivity networks that will affect their still-forming personalities? Yes. Could kids still play flag football while learning tackling fundamentals on pad or dummies? Yes.
Why, then, do we expose children to the unnecessary violence and risks to their brains associated with youth tackle football?
I grew up alongside football. I attempted my first coach’s film session in 2nd grade (though I quit after 10 minutes, 107 rewinds, and only 3 plays) and declined the opportunity to play in college after two knee reconstructions in high school. My father, Rob Lytle, finished 3rd in the 1976 Heisman Trophy voting, scored a touchdown in Super Bowl XII, and will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in December 2015. I also watched—clueless, helpless, and from too far a distance—as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) eroded the father I had idolized.
Football is far from perfect. In my writing, I’ve highlighted my bittersweet and complicated football life. I’ve asked whether the devotion my dad had to the gridiron and the sacrifice he made to play between the white lines is worth the ultimate price he paid. Despite these questions, I do believe that football promotes virtues such as discipline, commitment, and self-sacrifice better than other sports and other pursuits. This isn’t a fact. Just my opinion based on my own experiences.
However, given the facts known about brain trauma, CTE, and football, the sport must become safer in order to survive. Perhaps, then, part of football’s evolution should be the acknowledgment that youth tackle football isn’t safe at all for children to play.
Kelly Lytle is the author of To Dad, From Kelly, a memoir about fathers and sons, lessons and questions, and life and death. To Dad, From Kelly is available online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple.