Super Bowl Sunday is upon us and there’s one health concern that comes with it: Will all the aspiring youngsters watching become football players who could experience major injuries?
The media has been flooded in recent years with reports of how dangerous football can be —especially on young children and teens.
These youngsters may not be playing at the intense level you’ll see from the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers this Sunday, but they can still be susceptible to major injuries.
One 2013 study estimated that high school players are twice as likely to sustain a concussion, than a college player.
However, the researchers said it was unclear if these repetitive head injuries can lead to long-term brain disease.
A 2014 report by the National Institutes of Health stated they found mixed results when they analyzed past studies of whether high school football players who had more than one concussion suffered more cognitive difficulties than those players with one or no concussions.
Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) introduced recommendations to make youth football safer for kids. Experts argue that by playing the game safer — and training coaches to educate kids on safe play techniques — children can enjoy the physical and social benefits of the sport.
There are approximately 1.1 million high school football players and about 250,000 youth football players ages 5 to 15 years in Pop Warner leagues, according to the AAP.
Rethinking Football Education
Leading medical associations such as the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA) and the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM), support playing youth and high school football as well as other sports when they are taught and played the right way.
Both of these organizations, and other experts spanning medicine, child advocacy, and sports, endorse USA Football’s Heads Up Football program for smarter and safer play.
A 2014 study found a 76 percent reduction of injuries in youth football leagues that follow the curriculum. When doing so, researchers saw 34 percent reduction of concussions in practices and a 29 percent decline of concussions in games.
"Heads Up Football reinforces many of the safety messages the NATA communicates and is an excellent complement to our organizational initiatives designed to make sports safer for young athletes,” Scott Sailor, EdD, president of NATA, told Healthline. “Our association is proud to endorse this valuable program that aligns so closely with our goal to keep young and aspiring athletes on the field, off the sidelines, and doing what they enjoy best in a safe and competitive environment.”
In Fairfax, Virginia, the public school system (the ninth-largest school district in the United States) adopted the Heads Up curriculum during the 2013 season. They were the first to enact the program on the high school level.
Since doing so, football injuries are down 16 percent and concussions have dropped by 28 percent across the district’s 20 high school football programs.
What Parents, Experts Say
Not everyone agrees that football is safe, and many parents won’t let their children play the game.
A study released last year just before the Super Bowl found that former NFL players who started playing before age 12 did worse in comprehension tests compared to those who played later. The study out of Boston University was published in the journal Neurology.
On the flip side, it seems as though the spotlight on safer football is leading to more safeguards for children — and better safety training for coaches.
“For any injury, whether it is sustained while playing sports or not, if it has not demonstrated complete recovery and full normal and biomechanical function, there is an increased risk of re-injury or a subsequent compensation pattern that can form, leading to increased potential of a different injury,” said Dr. Patrick Kersey, the medical director for USA Football.
“The bottom line is that concussions can and do occur on and off the field, but for non-professional young players, the benefits of team sports far outweigh the risks,” Dr. Cynthia LaBella, the medical director at the Institute for Sports Medicine at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, said in a statement.
Michael Kirkwood, PhD, a pediatric neuropsychologist at Children's Hospital Colorado, also weighed in, writing a column on the subject.
“Should you let your child play contact sports like football, soccer, hockey, lacrosse, or wrestling? That involves lots of factors for each child, and is best made on an individual basis,” he wrote. “My wife and I will let our children play any of these sports. If they begin getting multiple concussions, we will re-evaluate the sensibility of participation with their pediatrician and medical specialists.”
“The scientifically established benefits of participation in organized sports outweigh the known concussion risks for my own kids,” he added. “Playing youth sports today is apt to be less dangerous than ever, given the broad increase in risk awareness and greater emphasis on player safety in rule-making, coaching and officiating.”