(Full disclosure: I am a huge fan of college football and the NFL. In fact, football is the only sport I follow.)
The National Football League is the most profitable professional sports association in the country, but if some doctors and a growing number of Americans get their way, the sport may someday go the way of the dinosaurs.
As reported by ABC News, doctors are increasingly advising parents to keep their kids – boys, mostly – out of football in junior high and high school – a decision that would likely keep them from ever playing the sport at the college or professional level because they would be too far behind in their skill development. And, increasingly, parents are taking the advice.
But some doctors want to go further than that; they want to ban the sport altogether at the high school level, because they believe kid players who suffer serial concussions during their high school football careers are more likely to suffer debilitating brain damage later in life.
Pediatricians are especially concerned about how to turn early scientific studies into useful advice for parents, coaches and school board members.
Banning the most popular of sports?
In an op-ed for the medical journal Pediatrics, doctors from many institutions – including the University of North Carolina and Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City – discussed and debated the benefits and drawbacks of pushing for a ban on high school football.
The opinion piece primarily discussed exploring physical risks associated with high school football, where three experts gave answers to a hypothetical scenario in which a small-town pediatrician is asked to decide whether to advise local school officials to cancel an existing football program.
The concern among healthcare professionals is about concussions and their potential role in the development of CTE – chronic traumatic encephalopathy – and that has led many to begin focusing on the dangers of tackle football.
In recent years, ABC News reported, posthumous examinations of a number of former professional football players have revealed that they had been suffering from CTE. Currently, the condition can only be diagnosed posthumously, but the lifetime risks for an average football player, especially a high school player, are not yet known.
CTE is a degenerative disease process in which the buildup of an abnormal protein, called tao, occurs. It is also found in dementia patients, and has been linked to the slow destruction of brain tissue. Scientists believe that it is caused by repetitive brain trauma, especially in the form of concussions, according to experts at the CTE Center at Boston University. Symptoms include aggressiveness, memory loss, confusion, impulse control issues, anxiety, depression and dementia that progressively worsens.
Associate Professor of Orthopedics Dr. Andrew Gregory, at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, told ABC News that new research and focus on concussions has been key in helping to raise awareness of the problem. However, he added that he didn’t want parents to become so afraid that they kept their children out of organized school sports altogether.
“I do worry about the anxiety in general,” he said. “We don’t want the message to be that kids shouldn’t participate in sports because of risk of injury.” He added that the real question is, “What can we do to make kids safer?”
NFL already working to improve player safety
The NFL and other institutions are constantly researching ways to make the game safer and less physically debilitating for players – which comes at the behest of owners who have a lot of money invested in their teams. This includes ways to change rules to decrease unsafe contact and improving equipment like helmets and shoulder pads. Much of this research is passed down to the collegiate and high school level.
But that’s not enough for some who simply want to ban a sport tens of thousands of athletes try to play and tens of millions of people around the world enjoy watching.
Dr. Lewis Margolis is in the “ban” camp. He says that current evidence points to football as being more dangerous to the brain than other sports, and there is a lack of evidence indicating that the benefits – building character and physical fitness – outweigh the risks.
“High school football players have, by far, the highest risk of concussion of any sport,” he wrote. “In football, the rate of concussion is 60 percent higher than in the second ranking sport, lacrosse.”