Should your son play tackle football, and if so, when? Football requires a level of discipline and a team mindset matched by few other sports or recreational activities. It offers an organized path of physical challenge that many find transformative, and provides a source of structure and values to many who otherwise might never be inclined to sacrifice for a larger purpose.
But the sport is not without a unique level of risk. Recent research on the effects of concussions and the tragic consequences of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) cannot be ignored. Symptoms range from memory loss, to anger, intense depression, and even suicidal ideation. Football greats like Dave Duerson and Junior Seau took their own lives in a manner meant to preserve their brains for research. This terrible disease, caused by repeated head collisions, has manifested as early as age 18, in the case of one deceased multi-sport athlete. These findings, while not the end of the story, should give us pause.
The football concussion debate has grown increasingly divisive. As in our political climate, both camps are heavily entrenched with no sign of anyone budging. For progress and clarity on the issue, we have to be willing to approach this discussion with an acknowledgement of the truth on both sides. The issue is far from black and white, but we owe it to our children to make a thoughtful decision based on all available data.
The Two Sides of the Debate
Before we begin, we must assume a baseline understanding that some risk is inherent in sport and in life. If you are of the opinion that any risk is unacceptable, and thus sports are not good for society, then we’ll have to agree to disagree. Perhaps your time would be better spent reading about Volvo’s new safety features or practicing your bongos.
This piece is specifically about youth football, which I’ll define as prior to age 14. Relevant to the discussion is the cumulative effect of youth, high school, and collegiate football, compared to those who do not begin football until high school.
When it comes to youth tackle football, there are two main factions. Both sides are, to some degree, warranted in their beliefs.
- One camp claims that the idea of eliminating youth tackle football is rooted in our intensely over-protective, “helicopter mom” culture. Whether you fall in this camp or not, the underlying concerns stem from a real societal problem. It is a rational reaction for people to hesitate to be even more protective in a society that’s already gone far too far in that direction.
- The opposing camp claims that the majority of those in favor of tackle football for six-year-olds will ignore any negative health consequences in their almost religious love for the violence and toughness of the sport. They’ll say that no matter what evidence is presented, this group will be totally dismissive of the very real issue of head trauma, particularly in regards to the developing brain.
Why Do We Need Football?
We must frame this debate with an understanding of our natural human inclinations and evolutionary predispositions. Despite the unparalleled safety and comfort of the modern era, our people face physical limitations and mental health disorders in record numbers. Sebastian Junger postulates in his book, Tribe, that the foremost challenge of modern society is that the “individualized lifestyles that (technologies) spawn seem to be deeply brutalizing to the human spirit.” He gives overwhelming evidence of the positive mental health benefits of disaster situations. From the war in Bosnia, to the Battle of Britain, to the true results of Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters, chaos creates a kind of solidarity that is deeply therapeutic. Depression and anxiety are nearly universally cured when people are thrust into situations that eliminate our social status and require us to depend on collective efforts toward the common good. We thrive when given purpose, tight bonds, and a reason to care about more than ourselves.
What the hell does all this have to do with football? It is one way we recreate the benefits of survival situations without having to be thrust into the violence and tragedy of war and chaos. For millennia, males defined themselves by their ability to protect and provide. Within this construct, they were inclined to sacrifice for the common good and act with valor and courage that satisfied their need for purpose. In this way, football seems a good antidote for some very real societal concerns.
Football promotes a team orientation to an unrivalled degree. It is one of the few sports where cuts are rare, and where almost every body type can find a way to be successful. The best running back is useless without great blocking, and the best linebackers are useless behind a flimsy defensive line. The intensely cerebral nature of the game means even those without athletic gifts can be tremendously valuable in roles on the scout team, in film sessions, and in supporting teammates through years of difficult workouts. Success cannot be had without the discipline, self-sacrifice, toughness, and common vision of all.
At What Cost?
The value football offers to our young men must be weighed against the cost of playing, particularly the effects of concussions. For many, that value is life-altering, perhaps life-saving. Still, by no means is football the only answer for creating solidarity, meritocracy, and a form of the male rite of passage. These can be creatively brought into existence in dozens of ways that carry less risk of brain damage.
There is considerable debate and some animosity over this issue, even amongst former NFL players. Many current and former NFL athletes have come out and said they don’t want their children to play football. Jets linebacker Bart Scott said bluntly that his kids won’t play. Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner announced that he didn’t want his sons to play football, and was met with vicious reprisal from former NFL athletes Amani Toomer and Merril Hoge. Hoge, interestingly, won a $1.55 million lawsuit against a former Chicago Bears team physician for not warning him of the severity of his concussions, which forced his early retirement. Hoge has told the story of how one vicious hit left him with memory loss and having to relearn how to write his name.
While all sports carry some inherent risk of head injuries, contact sports like boxing, wrestling, and hockey have far higher risk, and football is head and shoulders above the rest. This is most noteworthy because the brain, unlike most organs, cannot cure or repair itself following all injuries. Furthermore, CTE is shown to be a cumulative disorder. A study of former NFL players1 who began playing football before the age of 12 found that they faced a higher risk of later-life cognitive impairment than those who picked up the sport at a later age.
CTE is the result of repeated head strikes, and there is an increasing number of examples of the risks of getting hit so often, and so early. In January 2016, a 25-year-old former college football player was posthumously diagnosed with CTE. He began playing at 6 years old. It’s reasonable to assume that the early years of head injuries contributed to this very young man’s diagnosis.
How high any one person’s risks are is impossible to say. Many thousands of people play football from age 5 through 18 or older, and experience no apparent cognitive deficiencies or side effects. These personal experiences make it difficult for people to acknowledge any real risk in the youth football game that they found so profoundly influential.
Often, the argument given by proponents of youth tackle football is that younger kids are really too small to hit anyone hard enough to do any sort of damage. They point out that they, personally, played and are fine. While this may be their experience, it does not negate the growing body of evidence that suggests playing at a younger age poses more risk. The brain and body are far from developed. There are some very hard-hitting eight-year-olds these days, and the ground can be unforgiving.
Risks With Marginal Benefits
For people who love the game of football, but are interested in mitigating the risks of CTE, starting later to ensure fewer years of play may be a good alternative. This may be the best course of action even in exclusion of head trauma risks. In fact, the reason I won’t want a son of mine to play before 8th grade has much more to do with football not fulfilling my desires for an early athletic endeavor. The same things that make football so inclusive and team oriented, make it an unappealing avenue for athletic development for the pre-high school population. Many of the high school football coaches I respect feel similarly.
Kids of a certain build are forced to play on the offensive line, where their movement development is significantly limited. They do not get to run with the ball, throw, catch, play defense in space, or participate in the manner that young athletes need and want. I don’t think struggling to remember plays or being put into a role where they have to block a person on every play is a very good experience for someone under 12. In the absence of engaging and stimulating play, they become far more interested in the treat at the end of the game and how cool they look in their uniform.
A lot of kids are only out there to please their parents. I remember that many of my friends who began playing tackle football very young were burnt out by high school, and quit after their freshman year. For many kids, the pressure to play is great and the fervor and over-analysis by parents and youth coaches borders on religious fanaticism. Driven purely by the joy of the kids’ experience and absent of parental pressures, flag football might be the only option in demand for kids under 12. Football is a great sport for high-schoolers, but flag football is far better for early athletic development and enjoyment.
There is growing evidence that you can begin playing tackle football late and have great success. The Manning brothers and Tom Brady didn’t play tackle football until junior high and high school, respectively. They all played flag football, and seem to have turned into pretty decent players. Jerome Bettis credits flag football with providing him the deceptive elusiveness that is so rare for a big running back. Bryan Hinkle, a 12 year NFL veteran of the Pittsburg Steelers, did not start tackle football until high school, and he plans to do the same with his 7-year-old son. Even I didn’t play tackle until 7th grade, and became a regionally renowned player with scholarship offers. This is all anecdotal, but if you wish to position your child for athletic success, tackle football at a young age doesn’t seem to be necessary. And given the risks, it may even be detrimental to their long-term success and fulfillment.
Remember the Bigger Picture
Football, while inherently risky, has had an undeniably positive influence on many lives. It can be argued that the trends of sedentarism, learned helplessness, and social media addiction are a far greater threat to the minds and bodies of our youth than tackle football.
But your duty as a parent includes more than creating a great football player. Your first job is to create an autonomous, values-driven, passionate citizen with the inclination to live a full life.
So what should you do? That’s really not for me to say. There are those on both sides of the debate who’d admonish you for even contemplating one side or the other. Parents must look beyond the inflammatory rhetoric and look at the honest risks and benefits. We must find a balance between becoming overprotective, promoting health, and allowing boyish rough-housing.
It seems apparent that the risks are greater with cumulative hits over a longer career, especially if that career starts early. It also seems that starting athletes in tackle football as late as high school is not a real barrier to their ability to compete. Whatever you choose, please remember that the real purpose of youth athletics is to create healthy adults.
1. Stamm, Julie M., Alexandra P. Bourlas, Christine M. Baugh, Nathan G. Fritts, Daniel H. Daneshvar, Brett M. Martin, Michael D. McClean, Yorghos Tripodis, and Robert A. Stern. “Age of first exposure to football and later-life cognitive impairment in former NFL players.” Neurology 84, no. 11 (2015): 1114-1120.