Is Football Too Dangerous for Kids? Doctors Say “Yes”

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Sorta transcript:

Look, I know that I don’t fit into the stereotype — I’m a woman, I read books, I dislike toxic masculinity — but I love football. I watch it every Sunday regardless of what teams are playing, I’m getting my ass kicked in a fantasy league, and I even spent a few very happy years playing in a co-ed flag football league in Boston.

But I also love science, and kids not dying or being injured in preventable accidents. That’s why I’m a bit torn over the mounting evidence suggesting that kids just shouldn’t be playing football. Two doctors from Minnesota have laid out the case very well in a commentary that will be published in the American Journal of Bioethics in January. Essentially, the problem isn’t bone fractures and pulled muscles, or even the freak accidents resulting in death. The problem is that 5-20% of football playing kids experience concussions, which can have some ugly results like impairing kids’ cognitive ability for weeks after and negatively affecting their schooling.

I got a concussion when I was 9 or 10 — I was skateboarding on some tennis courts at dusk when some bigger boys started chasing me. I ended up rolling full speed into a tennis net that had been dropped to the ground, which basically launched me to the pavement head first. I remember having a goose egg on my forehead that came with headaches lasting quite awhile, but luckily I fully recovered. I mean, maybe. Maybe if it hadn’t been for the concussion, I would have been a genius or something. But probably not.

What I didn’t know at the time was that having a concussion at that age made me more likely to experience a catastrophic brain injury later. If I had gone on to play high school football (which, if there had been a girls’ league I most definitely would have), I would have unknowingly risked long-term brain damage.

And parents and kids are still unknowingly taking risks. Even if the parents need to sign consent forms, those forms are often written in a way that muddles the true risks and couches them with language like “everything in life comes with risks.”

The doctors ask for medical professional to, as one, denounce kids’ football and recommend that public schools stop fielding teams.

I think they’re right, unfortunately, but I don’t think America is ready to take a drastic step like that. As the doctors note in their commentary, doctors and judges who are in charge of protecting kids seem more interested in not hurting the football industry, and frankly that’s bullshit. The American Academy of Pediatrics currently encourages a switch to flag football, but that’s not likely to happen either considering the number of parents who see high school football as an integral gateway to the NFL. The only realistic solution at this point appears to be the hardest: learn to like soccer. Ugh.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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  1. There aren’t many options. Limiting the weight of the players helps. It is the combination of mass and speed that contributes to the likelyhood of a concussion. As player size increases, the collisions become more violent. Soccer, as it turns out, carries concussion risk from heading the ball. I never expected that one. We see a similar problem in vehicle crashes. We can have airbags and seat belts, but that doesn’t prevent the brain and internal organs from smashing against the interior structures of the body. The number of g’s is a function of the deceleration distance. It kinda takes all the fun out of life.

  2. One thing which might help is if the NFL did away with the “down by contact” rule. Instead a player isn’t down until he’s wrestled to the ground by an opposing player.

    Today a defensive player is as likely to hit a ball carrier as he is to tackle him. That increases the chances of a concussion for both players.

    I’d go as far as to forbid merely pushing a ball carrier out of bounds, as that is another source of hits. A player pushed out of bounds could re-enter the field and keep running the ball; fi he steps out of bounds on his own, then he’s out.

    Hitting a receiver to keep him from catching the ball would still be allowed. At least I don’t see how it could not be, unless we wanted offenses to thoroughly dominate and make scores of 77 to 89 common. As it is my idea would greatly increase yardage and scoring, which would require tweaks to other rules to make offenses less dominant.

  3. “The only realistic solution at this point appears to be the hardest: learn to like soccer. Ugh.”

    That’s not the best solution. At least at the professional level, they pretty much all have brain damage from heading the ball.

  4. How can one learn to like soccer, when it’s impossible to determine the objective of the game?

    I grew up in Mexico, where soccer is by far the most popular religion. People tell me the objective is to score more “goals” than the opponent. A “goal” being defined as getting the ball inside the wood frame with a net on the back.

    I can’t believe this. For one thing the frame is HUGE and the so-called goal-keeper is tiny in comparison. I figure the ball should go in quite often. Instead it gets there maybe two or three times per game on average, if not less often.

    Far more often we see the ball nearly go in. It hits a post on the frame, say, or just misses hitting it, or is stopped by the tiny goal-keeper (who plays out of uniform for some reason). But no one keeps a tally on that.

    The other frequent occurrence is where players show off their histrionic abilities to the referee. You know, they get hit in the arm and will clutch their leg and try to convince the official it’s broken in three places and has a compound fracture besides. But, again, no tally is kept of this, unless the referee responds by showing the would-be-thespian a yellow or red card (which I hypothesize is a signal that the player should stop acting, perhaps because the performance isn’t credible).

    I could go on, but I’m sure we’ll have dark energy-powered airplanes made of synthetic dark matter, before we’ll crack the mystery of soccer.

    I might mention I cracked the mystery of baseball, which is to bore the audience to death. They keep playing it because no one has succeeded at it. The audience combats this with beer, soda, hot dogs and peanuts, and by occasionally getting into verbal spats with the players or the umpires.

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