My dad was a football and baseball coach most of my life. I loved it. I loved having my birthday parties at the game on Friday night followed by a slumber party at my house. I loved getting to the crosstown rivalry game at 1 pm to get a seat on the front row. I loved the pep rallies and the homecoming parades. In my West Texas town, football season was like a four-month-long Christmas, with all the spirit and decorations and hugging.
I loved it so much I even married a high school football coach (unintentionally, as he was a business major in college) whose dad and two brothers are also football coaches.
Football runs deep in this family.
But despite the love I have for the game, I will not let my son play youth tackle football.
If you’ve read any articles about the NFL the last few years, you know the discourse currently surrounding football regarding CTE, the degenerative brain disease associated with recurring blows to the head. The recent research has put the NFL in the hot seat, scrambling to make the game safer much to the chagrin of football traditionalists.
In 2017, a study came out by Dr. Ann McKee and the CTE Center at Boston University, determining that of 111 deceased NFL players whose brains were donated for study, 110 showed signs of CTE. For those of you who aren’t mathematicians, that’s over 99%. And for those of you who aren’t analysts, 99% is a lot. While researchers admitted the findings are biased since “many families have donated brains specifically because the former player showed symptoms of C.T.E.,” the NY Times article points out that ‘’even if every one of the other 1,200 players [who have died since testing began] had tested negative — which even the heartiest skeptics would agree could not possibly be the case — the minimum C.T.E. prevalence would be close to 9 percent, vastly higher than in the general population.”
Sure, this is horrifying, but the fact is the majority of us will never produce an NFL player. We will never have to decide whether football is worth the risk at that level.
But we all get to choose if they play when they’re 9.
Two years ago, BU performed a different study, this time focusing on the effect of youth football. Their goal was this: “to determine the relationship between exposure to repeated head impacts through tackle football prior to age 12, during a key period of brain development, and later-life executive function, memory, and estimated verbal IQ.”
The study, which was published on ESPN.com, evaluated 42 retired NFL players between the ages of 40-69. They had two groups: a group who HAD played football prior to age 12 and a group who had not. Of the two groups, the men who HAD played youth football scored “significantly worse” on three measures: memory loss, executive function, and verbal IQ.
Prior to this study, it had been argued that since a child’s brain was more malleable and resilient, it would heal more quickly than that of an adult. But this study showed the opposite, “that incurring repeated head impacts during a critical neurodevelopmental period may increase the risk of later-life cognitive impairment.”
Beyond just the science, my personal experiences have discouraged the early introduction of contact football. I’ve watched my father, a former college quarterback who suffered five concussions during his career, struggle with symptoms that closely mirror those of CTE. I also married into a family of two Division 1 football players, neither of whom played tackle football until seventh grade because their dad (a coach with four state championships under his belt) didn’t believe it offered an advantage.
This is apparently true of most coaches. I asked 57 middle school, high school, and college football coaches if they would allow their sons to play tackle football before 7th grade. Of those 57, 41 said they would not. And of the 16 who said they would, many included caveats (not until 5th or 6th grade, not unless I knew the coach, only if I knew they were being taught how to tackle correctly, etc.).
Brent Falls, the Varsity Receivers coach at Ennis High School said, “In my experience, pee wee coaches often teach the wrong fundamentals of football, making it hard for not only the coaches but the players too, to have to fix when they get into middle school.” Jim Reese, my dad who coached both at the high school and college level, said, “I think kids who wait until 7th grade do better, have less injuries, and don’t suffer burnout.”
Thankfully, there are better, safer alternatives to learning the game such as flag football leagues, 7 on 7 leagues, private lessons, and youth football camps.
I love football. And I desperately believe in the power of sports. I will never devalue the camaraderie, confidence, integrity, and work ethic it builds. I also believe in giving kids long leashes, letting them scrape their knees and even breaking a bone or two. That’s how we learn and grow.
But when we are able to see life-altering consequences our children can’t, when it’s their future we’re playing with, we have a responsibility to advocate for them. And because of that, my husband and I agree that youth tackle football offers no benefits worth the risk.
And until my son gets to seventh grade, I’ll just be over here praying he falls in love with swimming or playing the trumpet.