The Real Cost of Youth Sports

Editor’s note: This column was co-authored by Chris Nowinski, Ph.D. and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation

As parents we all want the best for our kids to be successful in the classroom, in sports, and in life.  Protecting the brain is essential to their success.

All sports involve some risk, but youth sports organizations should place a premium on children’s health and eliminate the most obvious dangers to children’s safety such as brain trauma. Our understanding of brain trauma in youth sports and its potential short and long term health repercussions has evolved over the past decade and a half based on a growing body of research and scientific evidence.

Many sports organizations, including The Concussion Legacy Foundation and The LA84 Foundation, initially responded to emerging safety concerns by focusing on concussion prevention and management in contact youth sports. Youth football groups also invested in teaching coaches purportedly safer tackling techniques.

New research, however, tells us that these responses do not do enough to protect young players before the age of 14.

A study in 2017 in Translational Psychiatry reported that among former football players the odds of experiencing problems with depression, apathy and cognition as an adult are two to three times greater among those who began tackle before age 12 than for players who started tackle at 12 or older. Their risk was not related to their number of concussions or the level of play.

A 2016 article in Radiology reported that in just one season head impacts among 8- to 13-year-old-football players, even in the absence of reported concussion symptoms, were associated with microstructural changes to brain cells that are usually seen in traumatic brain injury and may result in cognition and memory problems later in life. In other words, repeated head impacts can silently damage the brain, without a child feeling any concussion symptoms that could be reported to a coach or parent.

Responding to evidence like this, USA Hockey, US Lacrosse, and US Soccer have adopted recent rule changes that eliminate preventable repetitive brain trauma for children by reducing the riskiest types of contact.

The national governing bodies of boxing and football unfortunately have not taken equivalent steps to reduce head trauma in children.  Rugby, while urging caution when introducing contact, still permits children’s tackling and other forms of contact.

Youth football is, of course, the largest of these sports.  Youth football can provide valuable life lessons for youngsters.  It has played an important role in many communities, especially in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods.  Yet it is impossible to ignore the growing body of evidence that the neurologic risks of tackle football for under age 14 outweigh the benefits.

Why is the U-14 group so vulnerable?  This is the most critical time in brain development for children. A child’s head size matures faster than his or her body size.  So, a child’s head-to-body ratio is significantly greater than an adult’s. Take that kid’s oversized head, add a heavy helmet on top of a weak neck, and tackle football creates a ‘Bobblehead Effect’ that causes innocent looking impacts to create head acceleration levels that are similar to hits taken by college football players.

We are not persuaded that children need to play tackle at a young age so that they can learn the game “the right way.”  Pro football legends Jim Brown, Jerry Rice, Lawrence Taylor, Michael Strahan and Tom Brady all delayed playing tackle until they were 14 and were outstanding players at the highest level.

We have a responsibility to protect the brains of young athletes, especially those from vulnerable backgrounds.  Tackle football at 14 is an age-appropriate version of the game, but we cannot justify younger kids being exposed to hundreds of head impacts a season.

As leading organizations focused on the health and safety of athletes, we want parents, coaches, athletes, and all youth sports organizations to be informed of the scientific research that increasingly suggests that it is not concussions per se, but rather repeated blows to the head, or sub-concussive impacts, that can lead to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, and that young brains may be most at risk.

The LA84 Foundation, a major youth sports funder, has taken a stand by implementing updated grant guidelines that address safety in contact sports where national governing bodies not have eliminated the most obvious risks for children. The foundation will no longer fund U-14 tackle football programs, but will maintain and increase funding for flag football. Flag football allows children to learn the game and enjoy the benefits of exercise and team sports without the head impacts. Similarly, the foundation will not make grants to boxing programs that allow head punching under the age of 14 or rugby programs that allow U-14 tackling.

We appeal to all youth sport organizations to stand with us. Kids should be made “life ready” through sport, not made less healthy.

Our kids are counting on us.

Leave a Reply