After all the research: Should kids be playing football?

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We are well aware of the dangers of playing American football. Research shows we may be putting our kids at risk by letting them play the game from a young age, even if they don’t suffer a concussion. There are currently some three million youths playing football across the United States, should we let them continue?

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It looked as if it will be a magical night for 17-year-old Luke Schemm, who scored back-to-back touchdowns in a playoff game in November, 2015. But on the last play, Schemm was tackled and collapsed on the sidelines. His father later posted on Facebook that his son suffered a brain injury that caused it “to swell and shut off blood flow.”

We have heard this tragic story too many times. A youth football player collapsing on the field during the game, medics trying to save his life, but to no avail. In fact, we heard the story more than a dozen times in 2015 alone.

The dangers of playing football, and the effect the sport has on the brain, have been a hot topic in recent years, as parents become more and more concerned for their children’s safety. According to the latest research, their concern is justified.

A recent study published in the journal Radiology examined just how young players, aged 8 to 13, are affected by blows to the head. According to the research, kids show changes associated with a serious brain injury even if there weren’t any signs of a concussion.

Another study by the Wake Forest School of Medicine recorded data on head impact of youths before and after a football season, using a Head Impact Telemetry System. They found a relationship between head impacts suffered during the season and decreased fractional anisotropy in white matter. They are still examining what these changes mean in the long term.

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We do not need any further evidence to convince us that football can be dangerous, and even fatal. The real question is how do we tackle the problem? As a society we’re not going to give up the game, it’s part of our culture and we enjoy watching football too much to part from it.

Some argue that rules and education are the key to making football safer, especially for children. USA Football, an organization that is dedicated to youth football, is implementing new rules as part of the Modified Tackle Game”  beginning in the Fall of 2017. The new rules will only apply to select teams, to see if the changes make a difference. Some of the new regulations to be tested include a smaller playing field, 6-,7-, or 8-players per team instead of 11, starting in a two point stance and eliminating special teams.

Some have even called for a legal age to play football, like the legal age to buy cigarettes or alcohol. Bennet Omalu, the chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County, CA and associate clinical professor of pathology at UC, Davis, argues that “if an adult chooses to play football, ice hockey, mixed martial arts or boxing, it is within his rights,” but our children are minors who have yet to reach the age of consent.

In a New York Times Op-Ed, Omalu says that “the human brain becomes fully developed at about 18 to 25 years old. We should at least wait for our children to grow up, be provided with the information and education on the risk of play, and let them make their own decisions.” He continues to argue that,  “no adult, not a parent or a coach, should be allowed to make this potentially life-altering decision for a child.”

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NBA superstar LeBron James has taken a similar approach with his sons. In a 2014 interview with ESPN, James said that at this point he does not allow his two sons, Bryce Maximus and LeBron Jr., to play football, citing injury concerns. “We don’t want them to play in our household right now until they understand how physical and how demanding the game is. Then they can have their choice in high school, we’ll talk over it,” James said.

There are three sports the James boys can play – basketball, baseball and soccer – all three of which don’t have a high risk of brain injury.

“It’s a safety thing,” James added. “As a parent you protect your kids as much as possible. I don’t think I’m the only one that’s not allowing his kids to play football.”

There is no easy answer for this question. If anything it actually yields more questions. If we stop young kids from playing football are we harming the quality of college and professional football? Should that even matter? Are there other ways to secure the sport? What technology do we need to ensure players’ safety without lowering the quality of the game?

One thing is certain, football is here to stay. Now we must somehow find a safer way to play.

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