Youth Football comes with Greater CTE Risk than Pro Football
The 2014 NFL season began with two glimpses into the horrors of behavioral problems of those who have made a career of smashing their heads into those of others: Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson. As bad as the elevator scene was, for most, the most enduring image were those of the marks of abuse on Adrian Peterson’s child. We just have a greater sensitivity when it comes to violence against children.
Despite that, the most wide scale practice of exposing children to trauma continues almost unabated, that is youth football. One of my Twitter connections called youth football child abuse. It would be hard for me to argue against that. If allowing your six year old to ride in the front seat of a car is child abuse, then how do you justify exposing a child of such age to tackle football with helmets?
I have known for a generation that football was too dangerous for children, but what I didn’t realize until yesterday was that youth football was even more dangerous than NFL football. In a study published in Neurology, the journal of the American Academy of Neurology it was reported that retired NFL players who started playing football before the age of 12, show more evidence of early dementia than NFL players who started playing after the age of 12. This was true even for those who played more years of NFL football. (AFE means age first exposure to football.)
Longer duration of NFL play could have been expected to contribute to poorer cognitive performance in the AFE older than 12 group. However, despite playing fewer years in the NFL, the AFE younger than 12 group performed worse on all measures.
Stamm, Stern, et. al. Age of First exposure to Football and Later-life Cognitive Impairment in Former NFL Players, Neurology, 84 March 17, 2015
Why is it that children are more vulnerable to injury than adults from playing youth football?
Lets start with the obvious: They are children.
But for those who need it spelled out, here are some more of the factors that make them more vulnerable:
Recovery Time from Concussion. A child’s brain takes longer to recover from concussion than an adult.
Genetic versus Environmental Factors Increase CTE Risk. Under the age of 12, environmental factors, such as exposure to repeated head trauma, are more significant in development than genetic factors. After age 12, genetic factors tend to be more significant. See Stamm, Neurology, cited above.
Heads Disproportionally Large. Children’s brains and heads are disproportionately large compared to the rest of the body, up until at least 14 years of age. A child’s neck is disproportionately weak, compared to an adult’ The extra size and weight of the head coupled with a child’s weaker neck results in less ability to limit the degree to which the head will be subject to rotational forces in a collision. Rotational forces (which are the most dangerous inside the brain) will be greater for a child, proportional to the severity of the impact.
Helmets Are Disproportionately Large. The weight of the helmet adds additional weight to the issues of the head being disproporportionately large.
The other factor that makes youth football more risky than the NFL is that youth football is more lax about training of coaches, fit of helmets, supervision of officials. If there are concussion protocols, they are not administered by trained personnel. Baseline testing, helpful in determining whether someone has a concussion, is not done. Instead of being more careful with children, leagues are negligent.
Any sports league that exposes a child to CTE risk, such as tackle football with a helmet, must know about the risks. They must know about CTE –whether by the shorthand CTE or its proper name – dementia pugilistica. Brains are the precious cargo that our heads carry on our shoulders, that the skull is there to protect. But helmets are not an added layer of protection, they do not eliminate the risk of CTE. The opposite is true. The football helmet is an attractive nuisance which encourages one player to use it as a weapon on another.
What the Stamm study doesn’t explain is that the cumulative risk of youth football is hundred fold more than the CTE risk in the NFL. The reason – that millions play youth football while only a few thousand play in the NFL. Can society afford the cost of that increased CTE risk to so many?
Stop youth football. Stop this unnecessary CTE risk. One concussion is too many, but permanent brain damage, the kind that causes suicide, dementia and the kind of extreme behavioral problems we see in pro football, can occur without ever having a diagnosed concussion. Don’t let your child play tackle football. The CTE risk and risk of other brain trauma and disease is more than just a suspicion.