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Rethinking High School Football

Mark Hyman is the author of Until It Hurts: America's Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids, and he is currently writing a book about the business of youth sports.

HymanLast week, on my Youth Sports Parents blog, we raised the question: Is football too dangerous for kids? Just so inherently violent that, before a certain age, say 13, the simple act of participation places kids at an unacceptably high risk of serious injury? For those of us persuaded that it's a question worth raising, here's Exhibit A.

So far, research has linked head trauma resulting in permanent brain injury to football players as early as the college ranks. Last month, the New York Times reported on the case of Owen Thomas, captain of the football squad at the University of Pennsylvania.

Thomas, an outwardly happy student and accomplished player, hanged himself after what the Times story described as "a sudden and uncharacteristic emotional collapse." Thomas was 21, the youngest player yet discovered with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease thought to affect moods and impulse control.

Is there any doubt that a high school player soon will be diagnosed with C.T.E? From today's Chicago Tribune:

Of 21 high school players monitored for a full season by a team of researchers from Purdue University, four players who were never diagnosed with concussions were found to have suffered brain impairment that was at least as bad as that of other players who had been deemed concussed and removed from play.

"They're not exhibiting any outward sign and they're continuing to play," said Thomas Talavage, an associate professor at the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering at Purdue and the lead researcher on the study. "The cognitive impairment that we observed with them is actually worse than the one observed with the concussed players."

The report, published in the latest edition of the Journal of Neurotrauma, found that some players received more than 1,800 hits to the head during practices and games, some with a force 20 times greater than what a person would feel while riding a roller coaster.


Banning youth football may not be the answer. But the response has to be very bold. The best suggestion I've heard so far comes from Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard defensive tackle and co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine.

Last Sunday, Nowinski wrote a piece in the Times that proposed this:

Football needs “hit counts” like youth baseball has “pitch counts.” In baseball, all kids are subject to restrictions because some may suffer cumulative injuries to their elbows. Yet in football we’ve never thought the brain, which is more important than the elbow, could be subject to the same kind of cumulative injury. That is insanity.

I imagine there will be lots of comment about how difficult it would be to monitor hits and enforce a "hit count." For years, youth baseball coaches said the same thing about pitch counts, which are now uncontroversial and common.