Football doesn’t last for a lifetime; but a mind should. Any parent who has ever watched their child play a sport – whether causally on the playground or more formally on the field – has understood that scrapes and broken bones come with the territory. However, injuries can become more severe and serious while pursuing a contact sport like football. Children don’t just risk broken bones. They face the possibility of a concussion, a brain injury that can occur when someone takes a significant blow to the head. Such a trauma can have lasting effects that go beyond sitting on the bench for a week.
Unfortunately, brain injury risks can go beyond one hard hit. A few years ago, researchers found a different sort of brain injury that can impact those who participate in contact sports. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) occurs after hundreds upon hundreds of micro traumas damage the brain, leading to mental illness, depression, and early cognitive decline. Perhaps no other sport has faced the same level of scrutiny as football. After researchers studied the brains of elite athletes who played at the college and professional levels, they found that 94 percent of former professional players and 86 percent of players who stopped at the college level showed postmortem evidence of CTE.
Of course, that does not mean that 86 percent of all college football players will end up with CTE, regardless of what headlines ran in the media. The study that framed the public’s initial fear of CTE used brains donated by football players or their families. This group of donors already suspected something had gone wrong with the players’ brains. Indeed, another study that also received a great deal of attention focused on the same sort of group, those who already had evidence of CTE, to conclude that participating in youth tackle football before age twelve came with an earlier onset of mental and cognitive challenges.
Annoyingly, both studies focused on players who already suffered from CTE-induced decline, but that key point got lost amid the chatter, causing anxious parents to yank their children from football prematurely. Even insurers have gotten spooked – or perhaps merely greedy – and have begun to gouge high school and college programs to such an extent that some have dropped the sport entirely.
Despite the panic, few researchers have studied CTE in adolescent participants. Luckily, the University of Colorado at Boulder has begun the process, drawing attention to a group of junior high and high school students who indicated that they intended to play contact sports. Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, the researchers analyzed self-reported data and divided participants into three categories: those who claimed they would participate in contact sports, non-contact sports, or no sports at all.
Researchers found little difference among the groups when it came to depression and suicidal ideation, but they did find a link between depression and those who said they would not play sports at all. “There is a common perception that there’s a direct causal link between youth contact sports, head injuries and downstream adverse effects like impaired cognitive ability and mental health,” said lead author Adam Bohr, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Integrative Physiology. “We did not find that.” As they found no link between mental health issues and participation in contact support, the idea that a significant number of children who play football will end up with broken brains and CTE seems premature and perhaps at odds with the data.
Of course, the study does come with flaws. Researchers could not tell how long the adolescents played contact sports from the data set. However, the findings support the idea that medical journalists should tread more carefully when releasing findings and allow researchers to gather more evidence before proclaiming an entire sport too dangerous to play.
Basing decisions about children’s sports participation on the injuries of a select group of elite athletes may be shortsighted. After all, only a fraction of children who play football at the junior high level will have the talent for their high school varsity team. Further, only a handful of the most competitive high school players on a championship team will play at the collegiate level. From there, the filter narrows even more. Your average child has a better shot at becoming valedictorian or student class president than playing in the NFL or for an arena league team.
Indeed, researchers have even found a gene that may increase a player’s risk for CTE. Perhaps one day, scientists can develop a blood test to detect this gene, offering predictive value for future players. The test could filter these at-risk individuals from starting contact sports too early. Those who decide to play would at least know the dangers before they signed up. The rest would have time to find a non-contact sport more suited to their genetic makeup.
Everyone needs a healthy brain to function, and no one should lose theirs when it comes to sports participation. “In the midst of an obesity crisis, parents should encourage their children to play whatever sport that will keep them physically active and mentally healthy,” says Coach Tyson Pratcher of the Harlem Jets, an organization dedicated to athletes and youth learning teamwork, good sportsmanship, healthy values, leadership skills, and lifelong friendships. Studies have shown that the lack of participation in sports – and limited physical activity in general – leads to weight issues, health decline, and mental illness. All three threaten our children in far greater numbers than CTE.