This past Sunday’s Superbowl was another reminder of America’s love affair with the violent sport of tackle football. While the sport maintains its immense popularity, the grave health risks to players have never before been so widely understood. “Tackle football is one of the most dangerous sports kids can play,” says Ms. Kathleen Bachynski, a doctoral student in the Department of Sociomedical Sciences who studies ethical and historical questions related to the health risks of youth sports. She explores the unique risks of youth tackle football in a Perspective article in the current issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
[Photo: Ms. Kathleen Bachynski]
“I like to describe it as a collision sport, which distinguishes it from a contact sport. Unlike sports such as volleyball or soccer, where there is contact, football has repeated full-body collisions that are an inherent part of the game.”
She argues methods used to reduce the risks of football-related brain trauma—either better adult supervision or improved technology—are insufficient to protect children. Examples include the “heads up” technique, promoted by the NFL and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for keeping the head up and out of contact during tackling, and the “concussion collar,” which partially restricts blood from leaving the brain in order to cushion it in case of a hit.
According to Ms. Bachynski, there is little to no systematic evidence any of these strategies can reduce the risk from blows to the head. Moreover, their proliferation suggests that awareness around the sport’s risks is being met with an equally strong push to maintain the status quo.
Across the country, children, some still in middle school, are pressured to play tackle football, which is often a centerpiece of community life. At the same time, these children, whose brains are still developing, are ill equipped to understand the risks. Ultimately, says Ms. Bachynski, the decision of whether or not kids should play tackle football is up to the adults in their lives, starting with their parents. Absent any serious rule changes, increasing numbers of parents are deciding to keep their kids on the sidelines.
“In order to safeguard children’s health, we need to consider ways of playing the sport more safely, even if those ways include some fundamental rule changes,” she says. “I think removing tackling, which is by far the riskiest aspect of football, toward touch football or flag football, is a way that children can still enjoy physical activity and the fun of the sport without having repeated hits to their heads and the potential for long-term harms that go along with those hits.”