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Just Don’t Do It? Brain Injuries and American Football
R. J. Crayton   Nov 6, 2013   Ethical Technology  

Former pro football* player Brett Favre recently admitted he’s suffering serious memory loss from years of head injuries while playing."I don't remember my daughter playing soccer, youth soccer, one summer. I don't remember that,” Favre said in a radio interview.

An entire summer of going to his daughter’s games lost? That’s pretty significant. In recent years, medical researchers have become more vocal about the fact that repeated head injuries cause significant brain damage.

Mr. Favre is an adult and has the right to put his brain in whatever peril he chooses. While he started his football career many years ago, before there was such a wide breadth of knowledge about the dangers of repeated brain injury, much of this information became available as he played. He continued to play, with the assumption that the benefits outweighed the risks he perceived. Now in retirement, he realizes the risks are more than he--as a consenting adult--realized.

With this in mind, it’s time to look at whether children should play sports that have high risks of causing life-long injury. This is especially true in football, where, until recently, there has been little technological innovation in preventing these brain injuries.

Do children get adult-sized injuries?

Few people have experienced the kinds of hits Brett Favre has. So, is it reasonable to extrapolate from what happens to people being hit hard--really really hard--by the best athletes in the business to what might happen to school children?

Well, here’s the thing: everything is relative. There's no way an eight-year-old is hitting as hard as Robert Mathis (the current leader in NFL sacks this season), but eight-year-olds do hit hard relative to the kids they’re playing with.

Chris Nowinski, co-founder of the Sports Legacy Institute, discussed this with ESPN. "I am shocked to see that these children receive levels of brain trauma comparable to college football players. At one-third to one-fourth the mass of the average college player, it appears they deliver and receive nearly the same force to the brain on each hit."

Nowinski was referencing a study of 6-to-9-year-old boys who wore special helmets to measure the impact of hits on them. What’s interesting is not just the hardness of the hits to the head, but the sheer volume during the season. “The average instrumented player experienced 107 head impacts, which included 44 impacts during games and 63 impacts during practices,” the study found.

Research on college players shows head injuries don’t have to be concussions to cause long-term problems. The Cleveland Clinic found that head injuries caused certain proteins that are in the brain to leak into the bloodstream.

“Much attention is being paid to concussions among football players and the big hits that cause them, but this research shows that more common, ‘sub-concussive’ hits appear to cause damage too,” said Damir Janigro, the lead researcher. The researchers are still trying to determine how significant that damage is.

One thing hits can do is cause depression in children, according to research released Oct. 25. “After adjustment for known predictors of depression in children like family structure, developmental delay and poor physical health, depression remained two times more likely in children with brain injury or concussion,” said study author Matthew C. Wylie.

So, it appears that even though blows are being delivered by small children, they are significant enough to cause long-term problems.

Technology Improvements Lagging

Another issue that has to be looked at is technology. While the world has made technological advances in many areas, sports equipment hasn’t been highest on the priority list.

That may be changing, according to a recent USA Today article. A lawsuit against the NFL by players over head injuries has drawn inventors seeking to make the sport safer. Until recently, safety has come via rule changes that penalize players for making helmet-to-helmet contact, and other moves that cause head injury. But rules only work for players who manage to exercise self-control during an adrenaline-filled, high-aggression game. Given that children and teens are still maturing and prone to make heat-of-the-moment decisions, rules have their limit in preventing injury.

New technology in football includes helmets with more padding (to keep the brain from getting injured), and helmets with sensors that can determine the level of impact a players helmet (and by extension, head) has suffered. These things are helpful, but they’re also aimed at adults, not children. The University of South Carolina purchased the new extra-padded Guardian Caps for it's athletes (legally adults). However, Colorado’s High School Activities Association has said the Guardian Caps are not in compliance with current helmet rules. The group wants more investigation, but until then, a potentially safer helmet is not being used to help prevent brain injury.

Just Don’t Do It?

If these sports have the potential to cause lifelong problems for students, should young children be playing them? I’d say we should do the opposite of Nike’s famous slogan and just don’t do it.

Youth football, like any sport, helps children build teamwork skills, helps them understand game strategy, and promotes a hard work ethic. However, the long-term repercussions of the brain injuries that can occur in football (or any other sport with frequent collision of head with another object) would seem to outweigh those benefits. There are plenty of other sports that offer the same benefits. One could even switch from tackle football to flag football, to avoid the head injuries.

The ethicality of starting young children in football comes into play because it's setting them on a path to ignore concerns regarding head injuries. Look at Favre, an adult who loved the game, and whose doctors surely warned him of the dangers of concussions. He continued to play, convincing himself the repercussions would not be so bad. Yet, even he found the memory loss he experienced more than he expected.

While we live in a fairly high-tech age, the technology to measure the impact of the head injuries is really not readily available to peewee leagues. So, parents who send their children out onto the field can’t really know how many impacts their children are getting, to judge if it’s going to cause severe damage. Equipment marketed as better and more protective has been controversial or not used by younger players, providing yet another reason not to put kids out there to get banged about.

Now, adults can do whatever they choose when it comes to sports play, as they’re adults. But children are in the midst of brain development as they physically and mentally grow to maturity, and that should be protected. There are risks of head injuries in all sports, but the level of contact involved in football results in more hits to the head than in other sports and it must be taken into consideration. It’s not ethical to put young children into a situation that might hinder their development and cause lifelong problems like depression.


* - For the purposes of this article, the word football refers to American tackle football, unless otherwise noted.

R.J. Crayton is a novelist living in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area. More information is available on her website.


HOUSTON—Texans quarterback Matt Schaub wasn’t initially aware that some fans at Reliant Stadium cheered his injury in the third quarter of Sunday’s game against the St. Louis Rams. But made aware later, the situation disappointed him.
Asked for his reaction to fans in Houston cheering as he was forced out of Sunday’s game against St. Louis with an injury, Texans quarterback Matt Schaub said,

“there’s no place for that in this game.”

“I’d hate to think anyone out there, regardless of who was injured—on our team, on the visiting team, whatever the situation is—that people would be like that and act that way,”

Schaub said Monday during a team-run radio appearance that aired on Sports Radio 610.

“There’s no place for that in this game and there just really isn’t”

There just really isn’t? What about in boxing? when fans cheer a pugilist knocked down or out, there just really isn’t?

Well boxing certainly isn’t football, so maybe boxing is the place to cheer when someone is knocked down or out. 

I shouldn’t be flip.

Boxing is a sport where the head injury toll is most apparent on it’s biggest star of all time: Muhammad Ali. Boxing has waned in popularity in recent years (Mike Tyson being the last boxer to achieve widespread, mainstream popularity), so it doesn’t get a lot of youth participating in it. But, I would contend minors should not participate in any boxing that allows blows to the head.

The tough thing about these violent sports is that they have an audience. There are people who admire the athleticism and toughness, despite the cost to the individual players. That is what Schaub experienced.  I think the audience accepts the risk in the abstract, acknowledging players are going to be hurt, not really individualizing them or empathizing with them. If the audience did either, it would make football and boxing, awfully hard to watch.

Exactly, RJ.
An athlete such as Schaub can be a tough guy about it and shrug it off. He shouldn’t say “there just really isn’t”, when perhaps there just really is. I’ve always been told men ought to be men- not mice; so Schaub shouldn’t be a squeaky little mouse squealing “there just really isn’t.”

Whatever happened to sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never hurt me?

A pro athlete risks his health with violent sports, yet is miffy when some fans (not all) cheer an injury once in awhile?: maybe the guy could play wiffle ball instead.

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