Everything turned yellow on Thanksgiving. I don’t remember much else from that day, now over 20 years ago, but a shift in the world’s color palette tends to stay with you. The frozen dirt of the football field, the sky dusted with snowflakes. It was the final game of yet another woeful season for our team against a much larger nearby city. I don’t remember the score, but I know we lost, because we always lost. And yet, even in playing football in futility, knowing you are likely to lose, there are victories to be snatched from defeat. A ferocious tackle. A shuddering block. You can hit people so hard that long after they beat you, they remember you were there. You can hit so hard that you knock yourself out and wake up confused and distraught on the sideline, seeing yellow, and no one thinks to check if it was anything serious. I remember crying on the bench as the hitting continued on without me. For years, I thought they were only tears of frustration.
Those memories came back this month with the release of a new study from a team of neuroscientists at Boston University that adds to the growing collection of research about the dangers of football. The results suggest children who play tackle football before the age of 12 are at a higher risk for significant brain issues as they grow older.
“Parents have a really hard decision to make, and they can’t say the science is there yet to make an easy decision based on just one study,” Robert Stern, a senior author on the study, told the Boston Globe. “At the same time, there is growing research on the effect of football on the brain, and we can’t ignore it. I’m at a point where I feel comfortable saying that, based on logic and common sense and the growing totality of the research, I don’t think kids should be playing tackle football.”
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The study follows one from Wake Forest School of Medicine last year that found young boys between the ages of 8 and 13 who played only one season of football showed signs of changes in their brains. Another from BU in 2015 looked at retired NFL players who had begun playing before the age of 12 and found signs of greater cognitive impairment compared to those who started playing after. Yet another study out of BU this year found 110 of 111 brains of former NFL players showed signs of the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a condition closely associated with concussions.
Stern and company acknowledge that their study is not to be taken as definitively conclusive, as their pool of 214 former players with varying careers in football, from high school to the NFL, was made of self-selecting participants, who might have already suspected something was wrong and thus decided to participate. Similar considerations exist when it comes to studying the brains of players who have died young or killed themselves, as was the case with former NFL star Junior Seau and Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, whose brain showed some of the most severe damage researchers have seen in someone his age.
The new BU study, which surveyed still-living former players, determined those who began playing at a young age (before 12) showed double the risk of developing behavioral problems like apathy, and triple the risk of getting depression compared to players who started later.
Roughly 1.23 million kids ages 6 to 12 played tacklethe Sports & Fitness Industry Association, a slight increase over the previous year. That age is significant, because a child’s brain has yet to fully develop by then.
The mounting body of research about the dangers of head trauma has instigatedabout whether we should let our children play the sport. In 2013, an HBO/Marist poll found that 33 percent of Americans said the link between brain injuries and football would make them less likely to allow their son to take part. Three years later, the same poll found that number increased to 40 percent. That’s roughly consistent with similar polling by other organizations in the past couple years, including a University of Massachusetts Lowell poll from last year that found 79 percent of Americans do not want children playing football before the age of 14. Whitney Young, a top high school in Chicago, recently canceled the remainder of its football season after there was no team left to field. “This is just about student safety, honestly,” said Joyce Kenner, Whitney Young’s principal.
Skeptics also include NFL greats like Brett Favre, Terry Bradshaw, and Troy Aikman, and even infamous tough guy Mike Ditka, who is practically synonymous with the idea of hard-nosed, “man’s man” football. When asked if he had a young son today, would he let him play football, Ditka said, “Nope. That’s sad. I wouldn’t. And my whole life was football. I think the risk is worse than the reward. I really do.”
Meanwhile, a growing number of professional players are retiring at young ages, citing concerns about CTE, including Buffalo Bills linebacker A.J. Tarpley, 49ers linebacker Chris Borland, and most recently, Baltimore Ravens lineman John Urschel.
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Despite that, football organizations continue to defend themselves, both openly and deceptively, against the backlash. U.S.A. Football, which oversees the youth game and is backed by the NFL, has touted the supposed improved safety of youth sports with Heads Up Football, a program meant to educate coaches on safer tackling techniques for kids. Butby The New York Times found the decrease in injuries was a mirage. A congressional report from last year also found that a number of top NFL officials had improperly sought to influence government research on the relationship between football and brain diseases, pressuring the National Institutes of Health to defund Stern’s work at BU. And Pop Warner, the largest youth football body in the country, released a statement downplaying the result of the latest BU study:
The participants in this study played youth football 40 years ago. Youth football has evolved significantly since that period and the major changes Pop Warner has implemented have revolutionized the sport, making it safer and better than ever before… The greatest evidence against this study may be the millions of successful individuals who played youth football and went on to become leaders in society as teachers, doctors, police officers, business owners, CEOs, judges and journalists.
The President himself, you may not be surprised to hear, came out on the wrong side of the issue, saying in a speech in Alabama that attempts to curtail violent hits in the NFL are “ruining the game.”
As one of those journalists Pop Warner mentioned who played football as a child, I am not so sure my employment has anything to do with the issue at hand. One can deal with depression, fake it through apathy, and go on to lead a normal and fulfilling life. Until you can’t anymore.
It’s easy to over-diagnose yourself when looking at a list of symptoms, but for as long as I can remember, these things have been a daily part of my life: sensitivity to sound and light, poor memory, ringing in my ears, apathy, and depression. It may not have anything to do with football—people suffer from mental and emotional disorders for all sorts of reasons. This is a relatively young science after all, as researchers are always careful to point out. Complicating matters,to diagnose CTE while an athlete is still living. (Even that may change: Another just-released study from BU identified a possible means of diagnosis in living patients using a biomarker known as CCL11.) As for myself, I’ll never know how many concussions, if any, I might have suffered over the eight years I spent smashing my head into my friends, but that’s only because it never occurred to anyone at the time to look into it. Just be careful not to fall asleep, they told us whenever we’d get our “bell rung.”
On the positive side, there are now more people than ever looking into the issue, and the focus has begun to shift from professionals and high-profile cases to high school and college athletes. While the former NFL players in BU’s “110 out of 111” CTE study got all the headlines, the disease was also discovered in three of 14 former high school players, and 48 of 53 former college players. In one case, Peter Grant, a former high school football and hockey player with seven known concussions, hanged.
It’s apparent you don’t need to have gone pro to feel the effects of repeated head trauma. Just look to forums like The Knockout Project, where athletes from all manner of sports are sharing their own experiencesawareness and engender a sense of community. Among them is former high school football player Kevin Saum, who was airlifted out of a game after suffering a severe blow to the head. Saum wrote on the blog:
At that time, concussion awareness was just beginning to pick up momentum and I was extremely uneducated about the injury. I was under the impression, that if I was not knocked unconscious, vomiting, nauseous, and had no memory problems, my headaches could not be the result of a concussion. Also, as a senior captain, I was afraid to tell my coaches and our athletic trainer about my headaches. At seventeen years old, my main mission in life was try to win a state championship with my team and for my coach to think I was tough.
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Saum’s attitude will sound familiar to anyone who played football when they were young. NFL players, we’re told, know what they’re getting into by now. They’re well paid, and the trade-offs, brutal though they may be, are worth it. But for high school and youth players, who know little, or are too young and aggressive to care about side effects years down the line even if they’re told, it’s a different story. You might ask yourself: Would you do it all over again if you knew then what you know now? The answer won’t change anything for you, but it might help your kids.
Over time, as awareness of the issue continues to spread, the rest of us, the non-professionals who are living out relatively normal lives, will begin to die. It won’t be until they look inside our heads, open us up and see what we did to ourselves, that more can be learned.
There are other small snatches of memory I can call up if I try. The sop of mud, the smell of clipped grass, and the rank vinegar of sweaty equipment. But the moments of violence I still feel without effort. Lining up one-on-one against a teammate at practice, hurling ourselves into one another, over and over, knocking our brains together, then helping one another up to do it again. Cheers from the team, assembled around us like people do when a fight breaks out. Encouragement from our coaches. All the clichés are true. We rubbed some dirt on it. We played through it. We got our bells rung. Young boys who scarcely knew anything, but were well-accustomed to the crunch of pads. It was the ’90s, and no one knew what was wrong with us. Or if they did, no one cared.