I turned to the person next to me and smiled as Prairie Ridge quarterback Samson Evans lowered his shoulder and delivered a blow before finally being taken down by a Crystal Lake Central defender.
“The kid sure isn’t scared to take contact,” I said.
Call it toughness, grit, warrior-mentality or some other coaching buzzword that typically causes me to cringe during postgame interviews. There was a reason – even if only subconsciously – I smiled as Evans plowed forward for extra yards instead of sliding down.
Anyone who loves football knows the feeling: the small amount of satisfaction that comes from watching a player fight for every yard.
But my reaction is difficult to reconcile with the reality the sport is facing: a mounting pile of data and evidence that suggests football is harmful to players’ long-term health.
A Boston University-led study published Thursday in the journal Brain joined the growing list of research that should give us reason for concern.
The study showed the strongest link yet that repetitive hits to the head – not concussions – are the likeliest cause of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease that is caused by an accumulation of tau protein and can lead to dementia, mood changes, depression and aggression.
Reseachers studied the brains of four dead teenage athletes, all of whom played football, among other sports, and found one case of early CTE and two cases of abnormal tau buildup. They then compared the results to four teenage brains without a history of head trauma. None of the four displayed signs of CTE or tau buildups.
Researchers speculated damaged blood vessels were leaking blood proteins into nearby tissue, possibly triggering inflammation and early CTE. They tested and confirmed their hypothesis on adult male mice, whose brains have similar attributes as humans.
To be clear, I’m not railing against football. I’m not questioning the important lessons children can learn on a football field – even if I believe those lessons are readily available in any sport or activity a child applies himself or herself to. And I’m not suggesting parents immediately pull their children from practice fields.
The Northwest Herald published a story in August regarding The Chicagoland Youth Football League’s decision to create a modified version of tackle football for 5- and 6-year-olds called “flyweight” football.
At the time, TCYFL president Geoff Meyer didn’t seem to understand – or at least was unwilling to admit – that the idea of introducing children to tackle football at such a young age was contradictory to his claims regarding the TCYFL’s focus on safety.
“In reality, some of those tackles aren’t even anything,” Meyer reasoned in August. “You’ll see one kid running to the ball, as soon as he gets touched, he falls down.”
I reached out to Meyer again Tuesday to gain a clearer picture of his position. Maybe he had started to accept the research over the past five months? At the very least, I hoped he understood the full weight of his responsibility.
Instead, I found someone who struggled to separate concussions from CTE. Someone who tried to rationalize the risk – “There’s an inherent risk in everything our kids do. Period.” – and someone who at times flat out denied the evidence exists.
“I have not seen one factual study that came out where it involves a conglomerate of different neurologists and everything saying that they’ve found it, they know what’s caused it to the extent of whether it’s playing flag football or playing any other sport,” Meyer said. “That’s what we still need for me to give you an intelligent, scientific-based answer.”
Admittedly, yes, we still need more answers. How many hits are too many? How hard does the hit have to be? Are some children more susceptible than others? Does age matter?
These are important questions that will take years to answer, but until then, it’s up to each of us to decide how young is too young for our children to play football.
Most importantly, we need honest answers from the people in charge – like Meyer – so we can make those decisions. Period.
• Kyle Nabors is the sports editor of the Northwest Herald. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @kylenabors.