DANGERS OF CONCUSSIONS: Will New Guidelines for Youth Football Make A Difference?

Ken Belson of the NY Times did a wonderful article this past week about a new initiative from U.S.A. Football, the nation’s governing body when it comes to amateur football, to do something to stop the dropping numbers of HS students who are deciding not to play football. Belson reports that since 2009, HS football numbers have declined by as much as 20%.

That’s a significant percentage, and of course, most of it can be attributed to rising concerns about concussions. Despite a tremendous upsurge in research on how to prevent or diagnose concussions, the hard truth is:

o There is still no football helmet on the market today that will prevent a concussion. True, the more advanced helmets can do a lot to soften the blow to the head, but no helmet can claim to prevent concussions from happening.

o And while there are medical protocols in place for a suspected concussion, there is still no definitive method to determine if a football player has suffered a serious hit to the head. Doctors can only determine real damage to one’s brain only in an autopsy.

NEW GUIDELINES FROM U.S.A. FOOTBALL

U.S.A. Football, in an attempt to do what is can to modify and make the sport safer for kids who want to play tackle football between the ages of 6-12, have announced the following changes:

Reduce the number of kids on each team during the game to no more than 6 to 9.

Have the kids play on a smaller field.

No more run backs on kick offs or punt returns.

All players must start each play from a crouch position, not a three-point stance.

Will any of this help? Or more directly, will parents feel more assured about letting their kids plays tackle football? If today’s callers were any indication, the answer is a resounding no.

Most of today’s debate centered on whether kids would be better suited to simply bypass tackle football and opt for flag football instead – at least until they are 13 or 14. By that age, their brain is close to being fully developed, and their head has more strength and support from their neck and shoulder muscles.

Dr. Robert Cantu, the Boston University neurosurgeon,has long advocated this approach, and I must say, I agree. If young football players want to play the sport, they are much better served to play touch football or flag football in elementary and middle school. Then, when they reach high school, not only can they turn to tackling, but more importantly, they can learn the safe and fundamental way of how to execute a tackle properly without risking harm to their head.  At the HS level, there are plenty of well-qualified football coaches who can teach these essential basics to football players.

To me, in light of the reality that we are in this transition phase where we are still waiting for medical science to catch up with more insights on how to prevent concussions, as well as how to treat them, Dr. Cantu’s approach makes a lot of sense. And by the way, for more information, there’s an enlightening article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek  that ran this week about what’s happening regarding the latest research in this area, much of which is being sponsored by the NFL.

Sad to say, the medical experts still say there is no effective way to prevent  a concussion, and even worse, we are still 4-5 years away from having a simple blood test to determine whether a football player has had a concussion. In other words, we are still in the dark.