Football

Parents have dilemma on allowing kids to play youth football

The man who snapped the ball to Dan Marino knows football can be dangerous.

As a six-year NFL center, John Bock smacked heads with opposing defensive lineman on every play. He got his bell rung. He sees former teammates and friends like O.J. McDuffie, who won’t let his son put on a helmet. It’s a violent, collision sport. The Crystal Lake Central grad gets that.

Bock, who was also the Miami Dolphins’ union representative, stood at the forefront during a period in the late 1990s when an increasing numbers of players become concerned about the link between concussions and brain damage later in the life. He remembers meeting with then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and other officials. He too grew worried about player safety.  

Even now, coaching Pop Warner in southeastern Florida, Bock, 43, still sees the inherent danger. Last year, a youngster on his team was injured, carted off the field, placed in an ambulance and rushed to the hospital.

“I know how scary it is,” he said.

So when Bock and his wife Caren toyed over whether to sign up their youngest son, John, for tackle football, he knew this. But he OK'd his son’s request to play. He carries fond memories from his playing days, and believes it’ll serve young John well too.  

When the elder Bock returned to the area earlier this year for his 25th year high school reunion at Crystal Lake Central, he stumbled upon an old photograph of himself and his football teammates from the Crystal Lake Raiders. Bock signed up when he was in sixth grade, the program’s first year. He smiled, thinking about his time playing the sport.

“We all hung out together,” he said. “We were all friends. You look back at all your friends and those are the times you remember.”

The chance to learn basic football fundamentals became of value for a player like Bock, who went undrafted coming out of college at Louisville and relied on his approach to find his way onto a roster.

“I was very fortunate,” he said. “We never scrimmaged. All we did was drills. Angle tackling drills. Frontal tackling drills. Running with the ball. We never did the fun stuff. All we did was work, work.”

He knows his son has much to gain from football, too. He’ll line up with friends, learn about teamwork and get better as a player.

He isn’t alone.

As much as parents have become increasingly concerned about their children playing football, a poll from Marist College last year reported that seven in 10 Americans believe the benefits from playing the sport outweigh the risks.

Herein lies the issue. How much longer can we hold onto that? Can we reconcile playing football with what we know?

***

Dr. Robert Cantu is worried. Cantu, one of the nation’s leading experts in sports-related concussions and co-director of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, sits at the forefront of a growing chorus that proposes tackle football should be banned for those under age 14.

Cantu is quick to counter that he loves sports. He pitched on the baseball team at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1960s. He enjoys football. In fact, he serves as an advisor to the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee. So, certainly, he doesn’t intend to eradicate the game.

But he feels that kids — at least until they reach high school — should play flag football, where players pull flags to stop ballcarriers rather than taking them to the ground. The evidence for his proposal is mounting.

“The bottom line,” Cantu said, “is that youth brains are particularly vulnerable to concussions.”

His thesis centers on two issues. Children don’t have fully myelinated brains. Myelin is the fat that provides insulation and coating for nerve cells in the brain, serving as a potential defense against trauma. So, after a jolt to the body, or a crushing head-to-head hit, the brain crashes into the skull. Myelin can at least help cushion the collision.  

But brains don’t become fully myelinated until people reach their early 20s.

Secondly, youth have disproportionately large heads and disproportionately small necks, causing a “bobblehead effect.” By age 4, children’s skulls have reached 90 percent of their adult size.

Not to mention heavy heads are compounded by helmets that provide additional weight. At a meeting last year, the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, a nonprofit whose mission is to reduce injuries through safer athletic equipment, officials admitted that issued helmets are too big for 95 percent of children.

Kimberly Archie, founder of Child Athlete Advocates for Justice has pushed for the NOCSAE to adopt a standardized, lighter helmet for children. She says the organization could have developed a standard 20 years ago.

“Where in the history of America,” she said, “have we sold products with no standards to children?”

A colleague of Cantu’s, Dr. Ann McKee, chief neuropathologist at Boston University, raised similar concerns about youth football, testifying in front of Congress in 2009.

“Because a young athlete’s brain is still developing,” she said during her testimony, “the effects of a concussion, or even many smaller hits over a season, can be far more detrimental, compared to the head injury in an older player.”

The argument holds that while concussions are recoverable injuries, the hits and the sub-concussive blows become cumulative. The hits add up.

But it’s unclear how prevalent, exactly, head injuries are among youth players. Emergency rooms treat an average of 173,000 sports-related concussions among children and teens each year, with football carrying the highest incident rate, according to a spokeswoman from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But that includes non-fatal traumatic brain injuries, not all cases of the hits that could lead to brain trauma.

Research, data and rates of injury for younger players is also limited.

But increasingly so, research does suggest the injuries sustained on youth fields can be serious.

In fact, two years ago, researchers from the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences reported that youth players receive blows to head that are comparable in magnitude to those of adult players. They found that even 7- and 8-year-olds sustain hits that exceeded a force of 80g, which represents a high risk for a concussion.

“This level of severity is similar to some of the more severe impacts that college players experience, even though the youth players have less body mass and play at slower speeds,” the authors wrote.

Youth football isn’t simply innocent, childhood roughhousing.

USA Football, though, did release a study last year showing a concussion rate of fewer than 4 percent. And even in the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest study, while the players sustained hits that were high in magnitude, no one was diagnosed with a concussion.

“The pendulum has gone both ways,” said Tim Rylander, director of concussion rehabilitation for Accelerated Rehabilitation Centers “As much as we’ve ignored these injuries in the past, then the pendulum swung the other way where we’re super vigilant.”

As much as Cantu's argument for a ban on youth tackle football centers on medical concerns, he also raises ethical ones.

Can children truly give consent?

“The 8-year-old doesn’t have the sophistication to know what he’s subjecting himself potentially to in later life,” he said. “The parent, if they do their homework, can know this. I guess if they’ve done their homework and tell their kid, in theory, the kid’s heard it, but I don’t think the kid understands it. So, in essence, the parents are going to have to take responsibility. And I understand that the kid says ‘I wants to do it,’ but if the kid says I want to jump the Grand Canyon in my bicycle, then I don’t think the parents are going to let him do it.”

***

Geoff Meyer grabbed the microphone.

Addressing roughly 70 or so parents and young players in the stands before a TCYFL all-star game this past summer at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein, the 15-year league president began to sound almost irate.

He had heard enough. He had heard enough from people who label the sport that his three boys loved so much a safety liability. He had grown tired of the “feeding frenzy.”  

“They say football’s unsafe,” he began, “it’s as safe as it’s ever been.”

They gathered here on this Saturday afternoon, because of football. And because of football, they’ll band together on the sidelines on fall afternoons.

“Football is one of the greatest games on earth,” he said, “and it’s because the game itself is merely the context that we teach so much more.”

This is being threatened. This, they say, is what they hope to preserve.

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