The New York Times has reported that a physician-led study at Boston University found that playing full contact football before age 12 leads to a 3 times greater risk of depression and a 2 times higher risk of behavioral problems and diminished executive function in the brain. The study followed 214 former football players with an average of 51 years old. Of the participants, 43 played throughout high school, 103 played throughout college, and 68 went on to play in the NFL.
A similar study at Wake Forest University found that playing just one season between the ages of 8-13 years old was enough to reduce brain function. Why is the age of 12 considered a magic number? Experts know that between the ages of 10-12, a child’s brain goes through rapid development and growth and that head trauma, such as hits during tackle football, can cause irreparable damage to the brain.
A prior Boston University study, conducted on the brains of 111 NFL players, also found that playing contact football before age 12 increased the risk of behavioral issues and depression. That same study found only 1 brain that did not have CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the formal name for the brain disease that afflicts those who have sustained repeated head injuries.
Changing the Rules of the Game
The NY Times article notes that the number of football players between ages 6-12 has gone down 20% since 2009. For unknown reasons, the number went up slightly in 2015, but the overall total of football players is still decreasing.
As parents, coaches, and players become increasingly aware of the dangers of playing the sport, programs from youth football to collegiate divisions to major football leagues are beginning to change the rules of the game in order to minimize hits and tackles. According to the Times, Ivy League colleges and the Canadian Football Leagues have both recently banned tackling during regular season practices. Pop Warner, which describes itself as ‘the largest and oldest youth football & cheer & dance program in the world,’ also changed rules, banning kickoffs during games. Kickoff returns cause nearly 1/4 of all concussions in football.
The recent increased scrutiny has also led to more rigorous testing of the safety of football helmets. The Today show’s Jeff Rossen reported that studies on football helmets have only measured linear force, or the movement of the head from front to back. It turns out that the ability of the head to move from side to side or in a swivel movement is the largest cause behind concussions, and a helmet’s ability to reduce that force and movement would cut down on the number of head injuries. Beginning in November 2018, all new helmets must pass stricter testing that specifically measures their ability to restrict rotational movement and force. It’s unclear whether rules will be passed that require football programs to replace old helmets.