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It's time to rethink football

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  December 3, 2012 07:40 AM

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Kids should not participate in an activity that has a high risk of bumps to the head. Nobody should.

That's what I immediately thought when I saw the front page of today's Boston Globe, with Deborah Kotz's great story about contact sports and brain injury. In a study of autopsies of deceased athletes' brains, researchers at Boston University School of Medicine found that most of them had signs of brain damage after suffering repeated head injuries.

It's also what I thought after reading the story about how in one recent Pop Warner football game, five 12-year-olds got concussions. Five of them. Really?

Now, I understand that football is as American as apple pie, that it is steeped in tradition and is held close to the hearts of many people and many communities. I mean I understand that this is true--what I don't understand, honestly, is why.

Have you ever heard the Bob Newhart baseball sketch, the one where he plays a game marketer on the phone with the guy who invented baseball? It's really funny--and a bit of an eye-opener as to just how absurd some of the rules of baseball are. I was thinking about that sketch this morning, and how football might look to us if we stepped back from it for a moment.

Imagine that your child came home with a permission slip to play a new sport. Let's call it...Bonk (I know, I could do better, but whatever). The game of Bonk, the slip says, involves speed and agility and is great for cardiovascular conditioning. However (this is where the permission part comes in), one of the requirements of the game is collisions between players. These collisions obviously carry a risk of injury, especially to the head--and they want to be sure that parents are aware that these head injuries could lead to brain damage, particularly when they happen more than once (which is entirely possible, given the collision requirement of the game). Not to worry, though, there will be helmets and they'll watch the kids closely and if they get a concussion they will have them stop playing for a while. Which should help, but doesn't guarantee that they won't get brain damage.

Would you sign that slip? I don't think you would. But we let our kids take these risks all the time in football. 

This is not about putting kids in bubbles. As I've said in blogs before, I think we go overboard sometimes when it comes to worrying about injuries and kids. Which makes the whole football thing puzzle me even more--we want to wrap our kids in bubble wrap when they go to the playground, but we knowingly put them at risk of brain damage when we send them out to play Pop Warner. What's up with that?

Players in the NFL, even college players, are old enough to make their own decisions about what risks they are willing to take for their sport. But kids rely on us to make those decisions for them. We didn't know before just how dangerous football and other contact sports were. We do now.

It's time to rethink contact sports--and keep our kids safe.
Boston Children's has a great Sports Concussion Clinic. If you think your child may have had a concussion during an athletic event and would like them to be evaluated by one of Boston Children's Sports Medicine physicians, call 781-216-1328. To learn more about concussions, check out the Boston Children's web page or the Traumatic Brain Injury page of the website for the Centers for Disease Control. 

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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