Youth Culture Window
Yes, we’re nearing the end of this year’s football season, but the debate about head injuries and concussions is still heating up. As data begins to emerge on player health, some wonder what the fuss is all about.
Others fear that football may not have much of a future.
Picking on the Pigskin?
There are many sports that can lead to serious injuries like broken bones and concussions, for instance, soccer, hockey, boxing, baseball, rugby, and basketball just to name a few. But serious trauma can just as easily be caused by the likes of car accidents and water sports, too. Heck, sports writer Rick Reilly even reminded us that cheerleading can be dangerous, as well.
But let’s be honest: nobody’s talking about any of those activities. Right now, the conversation is being dominated by football and its effects on players of all ages at every level of competition. The rise of concussions – the effects a person suffers after their head (or body) sustains a violent hit – and their long-term consequences has thrust the gridiron game to the forefront of the debate. Some have wanted this discussion for decades; others feel like football is being unfairly picked on.
As studies begin to emerge, like this one from the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center on 25 kids between the ages of 8 and 13, it appears as though the conversation is warranted. Looking at the MRIs of these kids after playing just one season of football, researchers found distinct changes taking place in the developing brains of these young student athletes. The scans showed alterations in the “white matter” part of the brain regardless of whether or not the player had sustained a concussion. Another study, performed by mounting accelerometers to the helmets of 24 high school players whose average age was 17, found that players who took the most frequent hits had the “most pronounced changes in several measures of brain health.”
Realizing that there are more than three million elementary, middle school, and high school students playing football, with little to no data on head injuries in these age brackets, researchers at the University of Virginia Tech have been busy trying to collect as much information as possible to share with those who coach these younger levels. Their findings were quite eye-opening and their recommendations were equally practical: change practice drills to reduce hits. (By the way, if you’re unfamiliar with football practices, go to YouTube and search “tackling drills.” You’ll see what players go through in a typical day.)
Not to be outdone, the state of Texas is wading into the research, as well. Texas’ University Interscholastic League (which oversees more than 800,000 public high school athletes) is partnering with The O’Donnell Brain Institute to see if improvements to equipment or changes to the game’s rules can make football safer.
When Hollywood makes a movie about a subject, it’s usually because the debate has captured the nation’s attention. That’s exactly what Tinseltown did in 2015 with Will Smith’s blockbuster Concussion. But knowing that movie tycoons would do almost anything to sell tickets, I decided to turn to the experts. Fortunately, one of them is a personal friend and former student of mine.
Kathleen Duncanson, the current athletic trainer at Berry College, did her undergraduate studies at USF and her masters in Kinesiology at UNLV. Speaking on the dangers of concussions, she put it in layman’s terms. “The most important thing to understand doesn’t have anything to do with science, but the fact that real life professionals are attributing their depression, apathy, suicidal tendencies, behavioral changes, impulsivity and aggression to the repetitive brain trauma that they sustained throughout their career. No one is too young to sustain a concussion, and after sustaining one, they begin to snowball. They become easier to sustain, require longer recovery, and the lasting effects continue to multiply.”
While not the expert she is, I have played lots of different sports throughout my adolescent years, many of which are now dubbed “contact sports.” Those years were marked with moments of euphoric celebration, strong and trusting relationships, unforgettable lessons about teamwork that I lean upon to this day, and yes, the occasional injury. In fact, these days when students ask me how old I am at various speaking engagements, instead of saying, “39,” I generally answer with, “Old enough to lament my football playing days.” Yep, every once in a while, a stiff lower back reminds me of two-a-days, “bull in the pen” tackling sessions, and running an endless string of plays at the line of scrimmage. Truth be told, I’d do it all over again…but then, I never suffered a traumatic injury, either. Not everyone was so fortunate.
Making the Call
With research still being in the early stages, doctors aren’t willing to make recommendations to parents about whether or not their kids should play contact sports like football. But somebody has to make the call, and that person is you, the parent. Here are two overarching thoughts to help you think through the question.
- Don’t allow sports to be the end-all, be-all for your kid’s life. For all the wonderful reasons mentioned above – and in spite of all the dangers mentioned above – I’m a huge fan of sports. Athletic competition has been a staple of our species for thousands of years…and that’s not going to change anytime soon. But don’t let your kid get carried away in pursuit of some sport because it’s not always healthy. The temptation is easy to understand; being a sports icon has its benefits, not the least of which being the millions of dollars that follow elite athleticism. But too many parents are partly responsible for permitting this kind of tunnel vision. After all, we live in a world where families relocate just so Junior can play on the “best team” or have access to the “best coach.” As leaders of our families, we need to keep a healthy perspective on our kids’ athletic interests and pursuits. Help your kids manage their choices, their schedules, and their expectations. Even if your kid goes on to win a Super Bowl ring or an Olympic gold medal, there is life after sports. Prepare them for it.
- When in doubt, get your kid checked out. It’s not always easy to identify the most common injuries related to active teens such as dehydration, sprains, and muscle tears. The difficulty only increases with more serious injuries such as fractures and concussions. So, if your child does play sports and complains of aches and pains, invest the time to get him or her checked out by a trusted physician. Additionally, it wouldn’t hurt to conduct multiple physical examinations on the student athletes in your family. An ounce of prevention really is better than a pound of cure.
There are many questions associated with whether or not your kid plays these high impact sports. Prayerfully weighing the pros and cons in open communication with your kids is the best way to find the answers.
David R. Smith
is a 15-year youth ministry veteran who helps youth
workers and parents through his writing, training, and speaking. David specializes in sharing the
gospel, and equipping others do the same. He co-authored his first book this year,
Ministry By Teenagers
. David provides free
resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, DavidRSmith.org
David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.
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