Since the Super Bowl is this week, football is a major topic of conversation. But football has been in the news for another more serious reason—the association with traumatic brain injury. Over the years, it has been reported that several former NFL players suffered from brain injury as a result of concussions sustained over years of playing. Some players have even retired early in their careers in an attempt to avoid such injury. Far from being an NFL problem, the issue of sports-related concussion is something that should concern young athletes who play football and other sports, as well as coaches and parents. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.
Football, especially at the professional and college level, has long been known for violent collisions. An obvious concern is that players could sustain a career-ending injury and head injuries, including concussions, are particularly worrisome. In particular, repeated concussions can cause a degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. The 2015 motion picture Concussion brought this issue to the attention of a wider audience, but many sports medicine professionals have been aware of this problem for years. A recent report suggests that CTE may be far more common than previously thought.
A concussion is caused by the brain moving forcibly inside the skull as the result of the head striking an object (another player or the ground) or simply the head moving violently without hitting anything. Because of this, concussions and sub-concussive injuries can occur even when an athlete doesn’t lose consciousness or appear to be injured. This can put athletes at increased risk for multiple injuries in a season—or even in a single game. This last part is critical, because much of the permanent damage comes from a second concussion sustained before the first has healed completely.
New rules banning helmet-to-helmet contact are part of an effort to reduce the risk of concussions. Off the field, players are subjected to special screening to detect concussions, assess recovery, and determine if it is safe to return to play. Improvements in equipment, including helmet technology that can monitor potentially concussive hits, may also help reduce the risks of serious injury.
Despite these efforts, some experts believe that football is simply too dangerous and have called for tackling to be banned. These concerns are more frequently expressed when it comes to youth football. The evidence that accumulated brain trauma sustained by young athletes can have immediate and lasting effects has led some communities, schools, and even whole states to consider banning tackling in youth football.
This is complicated by the fact that other sports also have a high risk of concussion, including hockey and soccer. In fact, heading has been banned in some competitive youth soccer leagues. And there is the fact that all sports have some risk of injury, including concussions. Furthermore, youth sports, including football, provide a great many young people with opportunities to be active, promote growth and development, enhance academic achievement, and have fun. The effect of banning tackling in football or heading in soccer on the health, social, and educational opportunities for young athletes is unknown and should be considered.
Whether policies like these are practical or not remains to be seen. In the meantime, there are steps we can take to make all sports safer for young athletes. We should make sure that coaches are educating players how to compete as safely as possible instead of emphasizing winning at all costs. We should also advocate for having certified athletic trainers at all games and practices to teach players safe techniques, assess and treat injuries, and ensure appropriate return to play. Most of all, we should be mindful of the risks of playing sports while encouraging kids of all ages to be active, play, and have fun!