In the five years leading up to 2005, emergency room visits for sports concussions doubled over the previous period. About a quarter-million kids with sports concussions visited ERs in that period. And most of the increase came from kids in elementary and middle school.
While kids are more durable in some ways than adults, it’s not true of their developing brains.
As the Los Angeles Times write-up of the study says:
There is “growing evidence that younger children’s brains are not only more susceptible to injury, but those injuries may take longer to heal and can be more damaging than concussions in adolescents or adults.”
Leigh Steinberg, the sports agent who was the basis for Tom Cruise’s character in Jerry Maguire, often tells the story of quarterback Troy Aikman after one of his NFC championship wins with the great Dallas Cowboys teams of the 1990s.
Steinberg says that when he went to congratulate Aikman, who had taken a bunch of big hits to the head, Aikman asked questions like “did we play tonight?” and “did we win?” How horrifying would this scenario be in an 8-year-old?
Steinberg — who was also agent to the constantly concussed Steve Young — made it his purpose to improve research and awareness of head injuries, and he’s done a lot to make the game safer for professionals.
But there has been too little done to find out the damage concussions can do to kids.
Of course kids bang their heads in all kinds of sports: soccer, baseball, skateboarding. But in these cases it’s because of accidents, screw-ups or maliciousness.
Football is the only sport where you can get frequently and seriously hurt by playing the game well, by doing exactly what you’re supposed to. (Okay boxing is probably another, but very few kids do that anymore.)
I love me some football, and I’m all in favor of kids getting a little bit reckless now and again,. They gotta live. But the idea of kids playing hard-hitting tackle football before puberty should really make us sick.
My father — a lifelong football coach — didn’t want me or my brother donning the pads before high school. (And lucky for me, a wimpy little poet at the time, he was ambivalent about our playing in high school, too.)
The problem isn’t any single hit some kid might take, it’s the constant pummeling over long periods. Oddly enough, helmets can make this even worse. While football would be downright deadly without helmets, they also make your head able to take loads of small blows that taken in total can do long-term brain damage.
So while your little prodigy probably won’t go on to play in college and the NFL, if he plays from 8 to 18, and racks up a bunch of concussions both large and small (footballers suffer loads of tiny ones that go undiagnosed) he could be looking at difficult times with his adult mind.
And if you insist on the kid playing, make sure his coach is the kind that will pull him for good when he takes a big hit, not some wannabe Vince Lombardi who thinks toughness is the only virtue.
How young do you think is too young for tackle football?