Banning Football to Tackle Children’s safety

26 January 2018

It is well-established that football causes C.T.E. a devastating injury responsible for dementia, and even death.  See last week’s note, “Football Settlement Excludes Players”. The NFL has even created a billion-dollar fund to pay the claims of players who suffer from CTE as a result of playing football.

And yet, the pipeline is full:  Hundreds of thousand of high school players want to play college football;  many of those seek a career playing football professionally.  Each of those athletes will have to decide if the risk is worth it; whether the significant risk of irreversible brain jury is outweighed by the minute chance of playing football in the NFL.    They, at least, are adults, capable of making their own decisions.

But who will protect children from the brain injuries associated with tackle football?  Who speaks for them?

One New York State assemblyman, at least, is trying.  On January 24, 2018, the New York Times reported on the efforts of New York Sate Assemblyman Michael Benedetto to ban tackle football for children. K. Belson, “New York Legislator Renews Effort to Bar Tackle Football for Children,” NY Times, January 24, 2018. 

It is unlikely that the bill will pass – it doesn’t even have co-sponsor in the State Senate. Yet it is worth doing.  Since he first introduced the bill in 2013, the link between repeated trauma to the head, from football, and C.T.E. has gotten stronger.  “I firmly believe that when we see evidence of the danger to children, we need to act on that,” Benedetto said. “There are laws that you need to use a car seat, wear a bicycle helmet. It’s the same principle.”

Tackle football is a big problem for children for three reasons.  First, the link between tackle football and C.T.E. is now well-established.  Second, lots of kids are at risk:  The article reports that over one million boys play high school football.  And finally, children have a particular risk for C.T.E.: “Doctors note that head hits absorbed by young players are more damaging because their brains are not fully developed, and are less capable of fully repairing themselves. Younger players also have weaker neck muscles, and therefore are less capable of bracing for impact and supporting the weight of a football helmet.”

Fortunately, there is a safer alternative to tackle football, and it is growing:  Flag football.  “[T]he N.F.L., USA Football and other organizations have also begun promoting flag football as a safer alternative for children interested in the game. Flag football participation rates have risen sharply.”

As the article notes, other sports have taken steps to prevent or minimize the likelihood of head trauma to child-athletes.  Because of it’s unique characteristics, though, tackle football remains very dangerous to children.  Because there is a good alternative, in the form of flag football, it is difficult to see who could oppose this effort to protect children from entirely unnecessary, entirely preventable traumatic brain injuries. Perhaps the pendulum will continue to swing in favor of protecting children from injuries of this sort.