With another football season getting underway, parents of players anywhere from college down to the peewee leagues are undoubtedly uneasy about the latest reports linking the sport to brain damage.
Researchers reported in July that the degenerative brain disease known as CTE was diagnosed in 99% of 111 deceased NFL players whose brains were donated for research. This latest Boston University study — while strengthening the link between pro football and the devastating disease — raised as many questions as it answered.
Because most of the brains belonged to former players whose relatives were concerned about CTE symptoms, the sample was not representative of all NFL players. Anyone wondering what percentage of NFL players will develop chronic traumatic encephalopathy is still in the dark.
Amid the uncertainly, what's a parent or player to do? It's hard to know, because so many questions remain unanswered. How common is CTE in football players compared with the general population? What are the risk factors? Can better helmet technology reduce those risks? Can CTE be diagnosed in living players, as opposed to only through a brain autopsy? And can CTE be treated or even prevented?
While the science of football and brain trauma is in its infancy, a growing body of research paints a sobering picture of the risks of football, particularly to the very young.
Children’s brains go through an incredible spurt of growth and maturation between the ages of 10 and 12, when hundreds of thousands of them play youth football. It’s not just major concussions that can produce harm.
“If you subject the brain to repeated blows at that age, it may get in the way of normal brain development and lead to neurological problems later in life,” says Robert Stern, a Boston University neurology professor and a leading expert on CTE.
A study published in 2013 looked at 50 players on three teams, ages 9 through 12, who wore equipment to count head impacts. On average, players incurred 240 head impacts, with some as high as 585, in one season of practices and games.
Add to that the startling findings of two Boston University studies of about 40 former NFL players who first played youth tackle football before age 12. Players exposed to football and repeated head impacts before 12 did significantly worse on a battery of memory and thinking tests, and had more abnormalities on MRI scans, than those who started playing after age 12.
All the players had reported some cognitive or behavioral problems and all played pro ball, so more research is needed on those who played only in high school or college. Even so, the studies suggest that fragile young brains are very much at risk.
To find more of the answers that players and parents are seeking, a seven-year study was started in 2015 to compare former NFL players, college players and men with no background in contact sports.
In the meantime, a handful of players and others close to the sport are reacting to the existing research results.
Days after news of the 99% findings, Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel, who's 26 and studying for a Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, quit the NFL. And last week, former NFL center Ed Cunningham resigned from his job as color analyst for top college football games, saying, "I just don't think the game is safe for the brain. To me, it's unacceptable."
Ultimately, parents and players will have to ask themselves whether the benefits of football are worth the risk of damaged brains later in life.
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