With increased evidence that repeated hits to the head frequently lead to degenerative brain disease, one of the country’s leading advocacy groups on head trauma has called for the abolition of tackle football until players reach age 14.
Backed by renowned former NFL linebackers Harry Carson, Nick Buoniconti and Phil Villapiano, the Concussion Legacy Foundation launched the “Flag Football Under 14” initiative Thursday at a news conference in Manhattan.
“I beg all parents to please don’t let your children play football until high school,” said Buoniconti, a Dolphins Hall of Famer who recently was diagnosed with dementia. “Believe me, I love football. I love it. But I made a mistake by starting my career at nine years of age with an ill-equipped helmet.”
Dr. Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player and professional wrestler and co-founder of the Boston-based Concussion Legacy Foundation, warned of exposing children to repeated hits to the head.
“We cannot overstate the absurdity of allowing 7-year-olds to receive 500 head impacts a season just because they happen to be getting exercise at the time,” Nowinski said.
Nowinski and leading concussion experts Dr. Robert Cantu and Dr. Lee Goldstein recommend that if parents want to have their children play football, they should play the non-contact version, flag football.
“Children should not be exposed to repeated brain trauma,” said Cantu, medical director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation and a longtime proponent of reducing young children’s participation in football and other high-contact sports. “All contact sports should have a youth version that is safe for the child.”
Goldstein published a study in the medical journal “Brain” showing a connection between frequent head collisions and the neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). He said the emphasis on concussions in sports has blurred the narrative about head trauma.
“We’re focusing on the shiny object over here,” he said, referring to concussion awareness, “while the overwhelming majority of (brain injury) is occurring and no one is paying attention. They’re getting hit, they’re getting hurt, but they’re not getting helped. It’s particularly troubling in youngsters.”
Cantu suggested that not allowing children to play tackle football until age 14 would lessen the incidence of CTE later in life. “By the age of 14, the major maturation of the brain has occurred,” he said. “The brain, by that time, is in a head that’s on a pretty strong neck.”
Carson, a Hall of Famer who played for the Giants from 1979-88, was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome in 1990 and has spoken out about the dangers of tackle football. He said he will not permit his grandson to play.
“The game is more popular than ever, but I always think that parents should understand exactly what they are signing their kids up for,” Carson said. “I’m one of those who believes in informed consent, much like smoking. There’s a warning on a pack of cigarettes. I think there should be a warning notice — by the Centers for Disease Control or the Surgeon General — to issue a warning to parents whenever they fill out a consent form for kids to play football.”
Nowinski said several NFL players have excelled — many even going to the Hall of Fame — even though they didn’t start playing football until high school. Among that group: Carson, wide receiver Jerry Rice, quarterback Tom Brady and running backs Walter Payton and Jim Brown.