Football is far and away the most popular sport in the United States. In Texas, football is not just popular, it’s part of our state’s identity.
As we learn more and more about how the brain is affected by the repeated collisions that occur on the field, many parents are asking themselves a tough question – should I let my child play football?
This question is posed as soon as a child is old enough to play tackle football. When contact is introduced into the sport, the risks for serious injuries begin. Many of the reservations that parents have stem from the damage that can be suffered to a player’s brain, and there is certainly enough evidence to make the fears of parents completely legitimate.
Impact of Concussions and Repeated Impact on the Brain
There are many ways in which contact sports can impact a child’s health, especially in regard to the brain. Around 135,000 children ages five to 18 are treated in emergency rooms for sports-related brain injuries every year, the majority of which are concussions. Concussions can have immediate effects on children, such as dizziness, headaches, cognitive impairment and mood swings. Long-term effects of concussions are the subject of more debate, though a recent study linking certain types of severe concussions to the development of Parkinson’s disease highlights the fact that we are just beginning to understand the consequences of concussions on a person’s long term health.
Another growing concern for parents who are grappling with the decision of letting their child play football is the frequent occurrence of “sub concussive” head injuries. One study found that after a series of serious hits, a player could experience long-term brain damage, even when those hits did not cause concussions.
Dr. Bennet Omalu, best known for his work on this topic and for the being the subject of the movie “Concussion,” was the first person to identify the presence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (C.T.E.) in athletes who have suffered repetitive head trauma. Dr. Omalu says that children who play multiple seasons of football can develop symptoms of C.T.E. that include depression, suicidal tendencies, memory loss, loss of intelligence and the risk for dementia and substance abuse later in life. It is his opinion that children should not be playing contact football until they are old enough to comprehend the risks and to make the decision for themselves.
It Isn’t Just Football
One of the reasons that so much attention has been focused on football is because it’s incredibly popular in our country. Around 1.5 million children in the United States participate in youth football. However, it is perhaps unfair, or at the very least inaccurate, to say that football is the only sport that presents a risk to children. Any contact sport, even those that aren’t typically considered “contact” by nature, pose many of the same risks for head and brain injuries.
Though the risks might not be quite as extreme as they are in a sport like football, sports such as hockey, basketball, soccer and boxing also put children at risk for receiving brain injuries. Even activities like cycling cause a significant number of brain injuries to children every year.
In Texas, where football is a way of life for so many families, the question parents face will ultimately be answered by a personal decision. There are many factors parents will consider before coming to a conclusion on the matter, but the risk of brain injury inherent in contact sports like football will undoubtedly be a significant one.