The National Football League “looks remarkably spry at 100 years old,” James Surowiecki wrote for The New York Times last month. “The league remains enormously popular across lines of gender, race, age, class and even politics, and N.F.L. games remain pretty much the only sure thing for high ratings on the networks’ schedules — in 2018, they accounted for 34 of the top 50 broadcasts.” Yet there remain serious concerns about the violence within the sport and the lifelong health problems increasingly associated with playing football at any age level.
In many workplaces Monday morning, including ours, one of the biggest topics of discussion was “that play” in Sunday’s NFL playoff game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Seattle Seahawks.
As Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz was tumbling to the ground at the conclusion of a running play, Seahawks defender Jadeveon Clowney came behind him to finish the tackle. Clowney’s right elbow drove into the small of Wentz’s back, and his helmet collided with Wentz’s helmet, which subsequently smashed into the grass.
It happened in a flash and looked even more sickening on the slow-motion replay.
Wentz left the game and did not return. He had suffered a concussion, which was accompanied by a brief loss of memory and temporary difficulty remaining upright while in a sitting position, according to reports.
A terrifying moment. For Wentz. For Wentz’s family.
It also should have terrified parents whose children play football.
Football is a violent sport, even when the plays are “clean.” As The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Bob Ford wrote Monday of the Wentz play: “As much as the league would like to keep the violence but remove the risk, that’s not really possible. ... It happens, and it happened right there, in an NFL game in which they were playing for money, and one of 100 violent instances during the game led to an unfortunate injury.”
The risks inherent in football are hardly contained to the pro ranks. College, high school and even youth football can be brutal.
Consider the following:
— Chronic traumatic encephalopathy — a progressive, degenerative disease caused by repetitive brain trauma and better known as CTE — was found in 99% of deceased NFL players’ brains that were donated to scientific research, per a 2017 study.
— Even a “mild” case of CTE can lead to cognitive and memory issues, anxiety, depression, violent mood swings and suicidal thoughts. These can manifest at any age level, and symptoms worsen over time.
— A Harvard survey of nearly 3,500 former NFL players published in August found that 12% reported serious cognitive problems. That compares to about 2% of our general population. And about a quarter of those surveyed had anxiety or depression.
— “Playing youth tackle football may be exposing kids’ brains to that same risk,” a 2018 Men’s Health article reported. “A 2017 study ... found that people who started playing tackle football before age 12 doubled their risk of having behavioral problems and cognitive impairment, and tripled their risk of suffering from depression later in life.”
Let’s focus on that last point.
We’re not going to tell NFL or college or even high school players not to play football. But we think parents should strongly consider not allowing their children to participate in youth football. This is not a new stance for us; in 2016, we asked parents to weigh the risks football poses to their children, and last year we praised the wisdom of Andrew Luck’s early retirement from the NFL.
That Men’s Health article reported that about 3 million boys play tackle football in America, with about 40% of them between the ages of 7 and 11. While these participation numbers have dropped significantly in the past decade, we think they’re still too high.
But trying to alter America’s football culture can be slow going.
“From the peewees to the pros, we’ve long accepted the toll that football exacts on the body — the sore muscles, the broken bones, the torn ligaments, the lost teeth, the risk of paralysis, and, especially in recent years, the dangers of concussions,” the Men’s Health article noted. “The risks are worth it, the thinking goes, because the sport demands toughness and forges character.”
That kind of thinking belongs in the past.
“Tackle Can Wait,” a recent campaign by the Concussion Legacy Foundation, attempts to steer kids who are under 14 into flag football and away from the contact version, The Associated Press reported. “Tackle football is like smoking,” states the young player in a public service announcement. “The younger I start, the longer I’m exposed to danger.”
Parents ought to heed the words of Robert Cantu, co-founder of the CTE Center at the Boston University School of Medicine, and Mark Hyman, a professor at George Washington University, who wrote this in an August 2019 op-ed for The Washington Post: “Tackle football is dangerous for children. Children who play tackle football absorb repeated hits to the head. As adults, they’re at higher risk of suffering cognitive deficits as well as behavioral and mood problems. ... We’d suggest that, as the nation’s top doctor, the surgeon general put this warning on every youth football helmet and place it in bold type on all youth tackle football registration forms. A parent or guardian wouldn’t be able to sign up their child without seeing it.”
We would approve of such high-profile warnings, too.
This weekend, many will watch and cheer during four NFL playoff games. On Monday, many will turn their attention to the college football national championship game between Clemson and LSU.
We suggest that, while watching the action on the field, parents also reflect on what might be best for their young children.