When it comes to concussions in football, most of the research and regulations have occurred on the college and professional levels, where the hits are the hardest and the spotlight is the brightest.
But now, top researchers are focusing their efforts on the next generation of football players — those currently playing on teams in high schools, middle schools, and pee-wee leagues across the nation.
In the past three years alone, 47 kids have died playing football. Seventeen of those deaths are directly related to head injuries sustained in practice or during games.
In the latest episode of HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, Chris Nowinski, co-founder and executive director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, and Dr. Ann McKee, director of the Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) Center at Boston University, talked to HBO’s Bernard Goldberg about the research they have done on the brains of children who play tackle football. (The results of the research will be published this fall.)
“I’ve looked at brains of young teenagers and seen damage that I’ve never seen before,” McKee said. “And it came from football impact injuries. Took my breath away, I can’t believe it.”
Nowinski said that each additional year of playing football increases the chance that a person will develop CTE, the degenerative brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head that can lead to dementia, depression, and even death. Last year, evidence of CTE was found in a total of 87 of 91 deceased former NFL players tested by McKee and her team at the Department of Veteran Affairs and Boston University.
While the impact of football on younger brains hasn’t been studied as comprehensively, scientists at the Mayo Clinic Brain Bank last year discovered evidence of CTE in 21 out of 66 brains they studied that belonged to males who played contact sports when they were young. Perhaps most alarmingly, they studied 198 brains in the bank that had zero documented history of participating in contact sports, and none of those brains showed signs of CTE.
So while the research is still in the early stages, the connection between contact sports in youth and CTE later in life is pretty clear.
“You have to say it simply: It’s a bad idea to hit a child in the head 500 times,” Nowinski said.
Even though players in youth leagues aren’t as strong and fast as players in college and the pros — and therefore the hits sustained theoretically aren’t as hard — brain damage in young players could impact the overall development of a brain.
There have been some initiatives to try and reduce the possibility of brain damage, such as Heads Up Football, a program funded by the NFL and overseen by USA Football, the governing body of youth football in the United States. Initial research showed that Heads Up Football was reducing the rate of concussions by 29 percent, but this summer, the New York Times reported that those statistics were only preliminary findings. Ultimately, after the study was complete, it was concluded that Heads Up Football did not reduce the risk of concussions at all.
“I’ve looked at brains of young teenagers and seen damage that I’ve never seen before.”
According to Dr. McKee, there is no proof that programs such as Heads Up football are working, and any claims to the contrary by USA Football are misleading.
“There’s no evidence that they’re making the game safer,” she said. “And they’re sort of saying that you can play football at that age and be safe, and that’s not true.”
So while research is conducted and governing bodies look for solutions (or claim to look for solutions at least), millions of young people continue to play full-contact tackle football on a regular — sometimes unlimited — basis. In an effort to reduce brain injuries, the NFL has reduced full-contact practice to once a week, and the NCAA only permits two such practices a week. But there are no corresponding federal guidelines for high school football or below.
“[T]he players who need the protection most are getting it the least,” Terry O’Neil, a former NFL producer, said on HBO.