Research unveiled this week shows that 7-year-olds sustain hits of the same magnitude as adult players. A 16-year-old boy died after a blow to the head during a football game in New York earlier this month. And in the NFL, there were 11 concussions in the first two weeks of the regular season.
But even as cognizance of concussions and head injuries in the sport rises, participation remains strong: 6.2 million Americans play tackle football, according to data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Earlier this year, a New York politician proposed to ban kids from the sport. The idea hasn't made it far, but the question lingers: Should kids play football?
While the research is often alarming -- the recent findings that revealed the severity of hits in the youngest players surprised even the researchers -- parents say they're glad that it’s being done.
Ed Resendez, coach of a Pop Warner football team for 8- to 10-year-olds in a suburb of Chicago, says the league has implemented big changes in the last few years: Hitting is limited to a third of total practice hours and requires training for coaches to recognize the signs of concussions.
“Knock on wood ... none of the kids I’ve coached have ever had a concussion,” he said. “A couple had some hard hits and I pulled them out of practice as a precautionary measure. Me personally, because my own son plays, I would rather err on the side of caution. We’ve had parents take kids to the hospital to double-check. With my own son, I would rather take a proactive stance. If he ever got hit that hard I would definitely have him get checked out.”
While the increased attention on football may scare some parents off, Resendez says others feel reassured, thankful for the information and hopeful that the sport has already gotten safer. No sport is risk-free, they point out.
Researcher Stefan Duma, who oversaw the recent studies about the severity of hits, agrees.
“I always tell parents that there is risk in any sport, and that riding bicycles is the number one cause of head injuries in children -- and we are not taking away all the bikes,” he said, who runs the School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences at Virginia Tech. “So, you have to be aware and involved in whatever sport your children play. My son likes soccer and basketball, but perhaps when he is in high school if he really wanted, we could have that discussion then.”
Duma believes the best protocol is to work with youth leagues to continue reducing practice exposure (the bulk of hits come during practice, not games) and design better helmets.
“Overall, our goal is to help work with the league to reduce some of the practice exposure and also how we can design better helmets,” he said. “Our ultimate goal is to reduce the risk of concussion and make it more equal to other sports.”
In the latest set of studies, Duma’s team found that kids as young as 7 were receiving blows of a similar magnitude to much older players. The initial studies were small; Duma’s team looked at 12-25 kids in each age category for one or two seasons. The researchers are expanding the studies and also hope to include other sports and female athletes.
“We were surprised about the number of hits that the players were taking at a young age, and especially the magnitude of the bigger hits was more than we expected,” he said. “You’re looking at 100-200 impacts at the entry level.”
It’s findings like those that make even the game’s elite wrestle with the question of kids playing the game they love. Former NFL player Scott Fujita recently admitted that he has no good answer.
“Everyone is smarter about limiting in-practice contact,” he wrote in The New York Times. “But once the games start, football is football. And nothing is ever going to change that unless you drastically change the game. I hate to say it, but no 'Heads Up' campaign or the threat of a penalty or a fine will reduce football’s inherent violence.”