Dr. Robert Cantu recently wrote an article for the Health & Science section of Time that discussed some of the obstacles for true understanding of cumulative effects of collision sports. As he notes some of it is ambivalence but the main reason is that we truly don’t have the hard data, only tiny snapshots.
Cantu begins his article by cementing his thoughts on youth football, it should be flag until age 14. Although this is an arbitrary age the reasoning seems sound, immature brains do react differently than fully developed brains. Research does indeed suggest that adolescent brains – especially prepubescent – are more susceptible and take longer to recover. Granted if they are not playing tackle football there is a good likelihood that some will sustain a concussion riding a bike or jumping on a trampoline; doing general “kid stuff”. The massive difference between that and organized sports is that concussions that happen in the playground or in a park are accidents. Some of our sports mandate that you hit or create collisions. As we should all be keenly aware, it doesn’t take a direct blow to the head to create the concussive injury.
Moreover, once a child had sustained a concussion getting the vital information from them in this subjective injury is difficult. Children and young adults are not very good at describing or even acquiescing to what is wrong. This puts them behind the 8-ball, so to speak, as the proper management is often delayed or not even sought. Mismanagement is the true elephant in the room on this issue. As seen above many concussions occur, by accident, outside of organized sports.
In no way has he, nor I, even remotely been associated with banning of organized sports; if anything we have championed ways to get MORE children involved through less potentially harmful ways. If people would take a second to think about the benefits of making play safer for younger people perhaps they would ascertain that parents/caregivers would be more likely to enroll their young ones in activity. There is a reason there are more youth soccer participants than football, it has less to do with the love of the game and more to do with the perceived risk. In the grand scheme of things getting more kids out for flag football; where they can learn the sport at its most fundamental without the fears of getting concussed on a regular basis (where it would be an accident) or broken limbs or battered on a daily basis, it would be a tremendous thing for the sport.
All of that goes for all the “collision” sports, reducing the risk at a young age will help those that participate develop the skills necessary to be prepared when it does comes time to introduce the collision aspect.
Most poignantly in the Cantu article is the call for a long-term study of cognitive function in youth sport participants;
These scientists are skeptical because there are no longitudinal studies on the effects of tackle football or other collision sports such as lacrosse or ice hockey on the brains of young athletes. In a sense, their doubts are understandable. Research science is, by necessity, driven by data and that’s the sort of reasoning that scientists bring to the problem. They want to see the numbers, and research on young athletes is relatively scarce. As a researcher myself, with more than 375 papers published in peer-reviewed journals, I want to see them, too.
Therefore, the next step in making sports safer for kids is obvious. What is urgently needed is the most ambitious, comprehensive study ever done on kids, sports and head trauma. I am talking about an unprecedented effort that, if properly designed, would give us the answer to the biggest questions.
That question is “how bad is the problem, or is it even a problem at all?”
I propose a study that follows youth athletes for ten years, from their first days on the field until age 15. It would include youth athletes in many sports. Although our primary concern is with children playing collision sports such as football, ice hockey and boys’ lacrosse, where banging into your opponent is an expected part of the game, this study would include swimmers, soccer strikers, volleyball setters and field hockey goalies. Let’s learn what we can about the relative exposure of these athletes and, of course, whether there is a discernible difference in the effects of head trauma between girls and boys. At least one thousand young athletes would be recruited for the study.
Such a study would be expensive, costing perhaps $10 million. (2012 the National Football League donated $30 million to the National Institutes of Health to study head trauma and degenerative brain disease in adults. Last month, the NFL settled a massive head-trauma lawsuit with more than four thousand former players costing an estimated $800 million.) But think about what will be learned and how it might change the futures of millions of youth athletes for generations to come. Then tell me whether it’s too much.
To which I completely echo his ideas and sentiments. With the vast resource of willing athletic trainers and money that could be dumped into this idea there is no compressible way it cannot be done. I am willing to help, and I am fairly certain many athletic trainers would be willing to help; not to mention the coaches, parents and players – all major stakeholders – that want to see sports like these continue.