Friday, October 18, 2013

Should your child play tackle football?

By Steve Kallas (posted by Rick Morris)

The debate has been swirling now for a number of years.  With the recent publication of the book, League of Denial, and, more importantly (for our purposes), the Frontline documentary of the same name, a more intelligent discussion can, in this writer’s opinion, be had on the subject.

While the book summarizes all that has happened in the last few decades, the Frontline piece brings it more to life, with more of a focus on young people playing football.


Well, virtually everybody knows the problem by now.  With the discovery (in 2002) of Dr. Bennet Omalu that Pittsburgh Steeler Hall of Fame center Mike Webster had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (“CTE”), a disease of the brain that can only be discovered at death, the door was opened to a whole new area of research.  The pounding that Webster had taken over the years in the trenches for the Steelers had eventually led to a great decline in his mental faculties and contributed to his death at the age of 50.  

While alive, Webster was examined by multiple doctors, including at least one NFL handpicked neurologist, as he eventually battled for an NFL disability claim.  These doctors, including the NFL doctor, concluded that Webster suffered irreparable brain damage from the repeated blows to the head that he took during his storied playing career.  He was compared by some doctors with boxers who had been diagnosed in the past with dementia pugilistica or, as it was known as far back as the 1920s, “punch-drunk” syndrome.  Boxers would be the first athletes to be diagnosed with CTE.   

Unfortunately, and this is beyond the scope of this article, the NFL, in effect, went out of its way to minimize, or even refute, the science behind the discoveries in Mike Webster’s brain and those of many other former NFL players.  It got so bad that Representative Linda Sanchez of California, during Congressional hearings into the concussion/CTE issue in 2009, analogized the action of the NFL to that of the tobacco companies a generation ago (you know, cigarettes don’t cause lung cancer).


The parents of a young child (6, 8, 10, 12 year olds) are really the ones who have to make this decision until they feel that their child can understand and contribute to the discussion.  While this writer would never think to tell a parent what to do (he has a son and daughter of his own), the following is meant to lay the groundwork for an informed decision that only a parent (or guardian) can make for a child.


While the answer seems to be yes, and to some neuropathologists, like Dr. Ann McKee, the answer is clear, some critics say various things like: you have to consider “other things,” like steroid use or alcohol abuse or why do some players get it and others don’t, etc.

The problem with the questions is, can a parent wait to find out if the Dr. McKees of the world, despite some overwhelming (to this writer) evidence that she is right, is really wrong?

You’ll have to draw your own conclusions.

Dr. McKee, who has looked at thousands of brains throughout her career, has examined the brains of 46 NFL players who died, some by suicide, some who were mentally and cognitively impaired at the time of their death and some whose brains were donated by concerned families.

Of the 46 brains that she has looked at, 45 had signs of CTE.

Obviously, a scary percentage.


Many are familiar with famous NFL names like Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, two former NFL stars who committed suicide by shooting themselves in the chest.  Duerson left a note specifically asking his family to have his brain examined.  Seau did not leave a note but many believe that he did not shoot himself in the head in order to have his brain studied as well.

Both men were diagnosed with CTE.

But who was Owen Thomas?  Thomas was a hard-hitting lineman who played his college football at the University of Pennsylvania.  He had played football since he was nine years old and had never been diagnosed with a concussion.

When he committed suicide by hanging at the age of 21 in 2010, Dr. McKee examined his brain, never expecting to find what she found: an advanced case of CTE.  In Dr. McKee’s words, “that changes the game for me.”  Now having to consider “sub-concussive” hits (that is, hits that don’t cause a concussion that happen all the time in any football game) as a possible cause of CTE, McKee said on Frontline:
               “Those sub-concussive hits, those hits that don’t even rise to the
                  level of what we call a concussion or symptons, just playing the
                  game can be dangerous.”

Who was Eric Pelly?  Pelly was an 18-year old senior in high school, a straight A student who played multiple sports (a little bit about sports other than football later).  Pelly loved ice hockey and football (he wanted to play for the Steelers), and played those two sports as well as rugby.

Ten days after suffering his fourth concussion, on October 10th 2006, Eric Pelly died.  When Dr. McKee looked at his brain, she was petrified, as she too had an 18-year old.  Dr. McKee found signs of CTE in Eric Pelly’s brain.  She said, clearly upset on Frontline as she was recounting her examination:

               “you know that, that brain [of an 18-yesr old] is supposed to be
                 pristine.  The fact that it [CTE] was there and he was only playing
                 high school level sports, I mean, I think that’s a cause for concern.”

These are the two cases (but only two, some would say) that parents should at least think about when making decisions about their young child. .


These are all very valid points and many scientists warn that there should be patience and more studies and more knowledge and information before drawing rock solid conclusions.

But here’s the problem:  If you have a young child and have to make that decision NOW or NEXT SEASON, can you really afford to wait?  Can you really expect the NFL, with all of their new initiatives, to help you and your child?

Shouldn’t you err on the side of caution?

What happens if you decide that (despite all the studies and conclusions of Dr. McKee and many others and despite the fact that, maybe, the NFL is turning around after many years of what many (including this writer) believe was a cover-up if not intentionally misleading studies and findings) you’re going to let your young child play tackle football at [you fill in the age].  And then two or four or six years from now, it becomes conclusive that all this pounding causes CTE in a certain percentage of players (and you can fill in that percentage: 10, 20, 50, 5).

Won’t you be the one who would never forgive yourself for risking your child’s health and mental well-being? 


Dr. Robert Cantu, one of the leading neurosurgeons and concussion researchers on the planet, strongly believes that no child under the age of 14 should play tackle football.  On Frontline, Dr. Cantu said:

               “With what we know about the youth brain compared with the
                 adult brain, that it’s easily more disrupted than the adult brain,
                 the youth brain is lighter in weight so it has less inertia to put it
                  in motion.”

                “So you cap a youth head [hitting himself on the side of the head]
                 whose brain moves much quicker than a adult brain, it’s [the adult
                 brain is heavier and therefore has more inertia.  So I think we
                 should be treating youths differently.”               

Harry Carson is an intelligent Hall of Fame linebacker who has studied the issue of concussions and mental issues for the last two decades.  On Frontline, Carson said:

               “From a physical risk standpoint, you know what you are doing
                when you sign your kid up; that he can hurt his knee, OK.  But
                what you should know now is, your child could develop a brain
                injury as a result of playing football.”   

               “It’s not just on the pro level, it’s on every level of football.  The
                 question is, do you want it to be your child? 


Well, while the problem, according to high school studies, is most prevalent in football, there are other sports where concussions and brain trauma are a problem.  In order, after football, the most dangerous sports in terms of high school concussions are:  boy’s ice hockey, boy’s lacrosse, girl’s lacrosse, girl’s soccer, girl’s field hockey and boy’s wrestling.

So, obviously, in 2013, this conversation is not limited solely to football.


Dr. McKee, an avid Packers fan who comes from a football family, clearly is scared by what the future holds, despite saying that “I don’t feel that I am in a position to make a proclamation for everyone else,,” when asked if she had children 8-, 10-, or 12-years old would she let them play football and, when she said no, asked why, she said:

                “Because the way football’s being played currently, that I’ve seen,
                  it’s dangerous.  It’s dangerous and it could impact their long term
                  mental health.  You’d only get one brain.  The thing you want your
                  kids to do, most of all, is succeed in life and be everything they can
                  be and if there’s anything that may infringe that, that may limit that,
                   I don’t want my kids doing it.”

Parents, the ball is in your court.


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