The Super Bowl will be on this Sunday. Many of us can’t wait to watch it, others are eager to see the commercials and the half time show, and there are those who simply look forward to going to a Super Bowl party. This is the most watched and commercialized event during the year in the US. So it was with great interest that I read the article in the February 4th issue of The New England Journal of Medicine titled, “Tolerable Risks? Physicians and Youth Tackle Football.” It was written by Kathleen Bachynski (note, a woman) from the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York.
She begins the article with the statistic that at least 11 US high school athletes died playing football during the fall 2015 season. In October 2015 the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a policy statement which proposed enhancing adult supervision of youth football. It recommends that officials enforce the rules of the game, that coaches teach young players proper tackling techniques, that physical therapists and other specialists help players strengthen their neck muscles to prevent concussions, and that games be supervised by certified athletic trainers. Apparently there is a “heads up” approach that is promoted by USA Football (the amateur footballs national governing body). I guess that means that when one player tackles another, neither should lower their head or something like that… The author states, however, that there is no evidence that this type of tackling technique is indeed safer. And just to cover their you know what’s, the AAP did acknowledge the need for further study of these approaches. That’s reassuring!
Apparently the AAP committee also decided not to endorse the elimination of tackling in youth football because in doing so they would fundamentally change the way the game is played. Here’s where things get extraordinarily worrisome: Repetitive brain trauma is known to cause serious short and long-term consequences. These include cognitive and attention deficit, headaches, mood disorders, sleep disturbances, and behavioral problems. The author questions how supervision can really make youth tackle football safer. She states that “players in excellent physical health, who enjoyed the best medical supervision”, (and I’m not even sure what that is) “can be catastrophically injured or killed when they are involved in full on collisions. Far more often, young athletes sustain less obvious but potentially cumulative damage to their brains from repeated hits.”.
She also notes that in November 2015 the US Soccer Federation announced new policies that prohibit players 10 years of age or younger from hitting the ball with their heads (this is called “heading”) and they want to reduce the numbers of headers in practice for athletes 11 to 13 years of age.
Bottom line, she suggests that children cannot make the decision as to whether they play tackle football but their parents can. “The best way to prioritize children’s health should extend beyond supervision of risky activities to include counseling against them.” Unfortunately the fame, money and hype connected with football overrides this kind of health related suggestion for parents, their children, and yes, all of us who watch and cheer for the players in this much beloved sport. I’m looking forward to the halftime show…