When should children be allowed to play tackle football or other contact sports? Is there an age when they are at greater risk?
All parents with a future football player in the household need to decide for themselves when the appropriate time has arrived for tackle football. Ideally, coaches and medical staff would take all necessary steps to minimize the risk of injury — especially brain injury. However, as we learn more about the potential long-term consequences of concussions, parents need to take extra care in their decision to let a child play contact sports.
Boston University researchers conducted a long-term study following 214 former football players. Some had played through high school, some through college and some through the NFL. The researchers performed phone and online surveys to identify any medical issues that could be related to playing football. The results were published in 2017 in the journal Nature’s Translational Psychiatry.
Players in all three groups had participated in tackle football before age 12. The researchers found that those who had done so had more than twice the risk of “problems with behavioral regulation, apathy and executive function.” They also had three times the risk of “clinically elevated depression scores.”
These symptoms are associated with CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a chronic disease thought to be caused by repeated concussions. CTE can have lifelong consequences.
Previous research had looked at the issue in NFL retirees alone. Those studies also found that players who began the sport before age 12 were affected more than those who had not. They reportedly had diminished mental flexibility when compared to those who began tackle football after age 12.
Another study using advanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology indicated that boys who played just a single season of tackle football between age 8 and 13 tended to show diminished brain function.
As a result of studies like these, many parents have decided to keep their kids at home. Tackle football participation among boys between 6 and 12 dropped by approximately 20 percent between 2009 and 2017 and probably continues to drop. Some kids are moving to other sports that are considered safer. Some school programs are swapping tackle football for touch or flag football.
The reality is that playing tackle football involves risk. If your child is seriously injured during play, however, you should not assume there is nothing you can do. While it’s true that you have assumed some risk by letting them play, you have not agreed to unknown risks or to a negligent response to an injury. After a serious sports injury, protect yourself by having your situation evaluated by a personal injury attorney.