In response to the new Will Smith movie “Concussion” – I recently wrote about my decision to not allow my sons to play football. And then I shared that decision on Facebook. It might have stirred up a little controversy.
Based on my previous postings to my practice Facebook page – this post – far and away – inspired more activity than I had seen elsewhere. I had several moms write comments in response to my decision.
- You can find that article here.
- And here is the Facebook post. (It’s also embedded at the end of this article.)
Their comments were all well written and welcome. But I also imagine that my decision caused a bit of unease. Parental decisions – especially regarding health – are kind of a third rail in our culture.
No parent wants to feel like they’re making a bad decision for their child. Or that they are being negligent.
(Which is why in a face to face patient interaction – you’d never hear me offer open criticism of a parent’s decision regarding the activities or health decisions they choose for their children. Not my child. Not my decision.)
Still – I wrote something that I believed needed to be said. And I believe that my decision is going to made by thousands of others in the coming years.
Why? Here are three reasons why parents are going to pull their kids from football
No. 1: More and more retired NFL and NCAA players are going to come forward (probably when in retirement) and make their health struggles public
You’re going to have players say they regret their decision to play football.
Players like Antwaan Randle El: Former NFL player regrets playing football, says he’s losing his memory and can’t go down stairs.
“If I could go back, I wouldn’t,” he said. “I would play baseball. I got drafted by the Cubs in the 14th round, but I didn’t play baseball because of my parents. They made me go to school. Don’t get me wrong, I love the game of football. But right now, I could still be playing baseball.”
Randle El was one of many players who received compensation in a settlement with the NFL over the long term effects of concussion.
No. 2: The quest for a safer helmet will not deliver on its promises
Everyone is looking for a safer helmet, and they’re collecting a lot of data on the kind of forces that are put into player’s skulls. At all levels of play.
There are a number of different helmet designs that are meant to cushion the head from the routine impact of the game – everything from magnets in the helmets to space age polymers, to helmets with sections that compress and move to deflect the forces.
What they’re going to reveal in this search for a safer helmet is that there is no helmet to helmet strike that’s safe enough to avoid all injury. And that’s not because we’re not smart enough to create a better helmet. It’s because of how the skull and brain interact.
And the danger created by the helmet itself.
The brain injury comes from the movement of the brain inside the skull. We might be able to reduce some of the force, but we’ll never be to reduce it all.
And ironically, a lot of the damage comes from the fact that the head is protected. This protection blunts our natural human instinct to protect the skull. The head becomes a weapon on the shoulders of the most aggressive players – the ones who tend to be the most rewarded in the game.
One of my commentators on my article on Facebook mentioned how there seemed to be fewer head injuries in Rugby – a sport where no helmets are used.
And it makes sense.
Rugby players have zero wiggle room when it comes to protecting their head and neck when playing. They also don’t have helmets that enable them to use their bodies as human missiles.
As a result of this you’re going to see fewer and fewer football practices using full contact with players in full gear.
See for example, this research from the University of Virgina Health System.
The researchers had UVA football players wear a high-tech impact-sensing patch behind their ear during 12 games, 27 full-pad practices, 29 half-pad practices and 10 helmet-only practices. Players suffered the most frequent head impacts during games; as the amount of padding increased during practices, so did the frequency and cumulative effect of head impacts. A total of 890 practice and game events were recorded and measured from 16 players.
No. 3: Studying helmet impacts will reveal that damage happens below the level of concussion
If you haven’t gotten a concussion, then you’re okay right? Not so fast. The Radiology Society of North America presented a study at the end of 2014 that showed measurable changes in the brains of high school football players after one season.
Players who didn’t get a concussion.
The researchers studied 24 high school football players between the ages of 16 and 18. For all games and practices, players were monitored with Head Impact Telemetry System (HITs) helmet-mounted accelerometers, which are used in youth and collegiate football to assess the frequency and severity of helmet impacts….
“Our study found that players experiencing greater levels of head impacts have more FA loss compared to players with lower impact exposure,” Dr. Whitlow said. “Similar brain MRI changes have been previously associated with mild traumatic brain injury. However, it is unclear whether or not these effects will be associated with any negative long-term consequences.”
The research necessary to investigate forces, helmets, and concussions will continue to reveal brain changes, even without concussion.
And that’s a risk that many parents are going to say is not worth it.