Football is child’s play. Sure, a few thousand adults play football once in a while. Several of them even appear on TV. But more than two million children play football every season. Is that a good thing for our children? Is that a good thing for our country?
Organized sports can be great for kids! They promote fitness. They offer the joy of mastery. They build social bonds. They teach teamwork.
The only problem: we recently discovered that the NFL seems to have been hiding the medical truth for decades. Playing football ALWAYS rattles the brain. Playing football definitely causes long-term brain damage. The main question Americans still need to figure out: does playing tackle football cause permanent brain damage and early onset dementia in every player? Or just in some? Exposing the NFL’s secret is giving parents something to think about. What on earth should a loving parent do when a child asks to play football?
Fortunately, since the discovery of football’s big lie, impartial scholars have been waving away both the skeptics and the sky-is-falling worriers and earnestly struggling to figure out the risk. In the last decade, there have been remarkable advances in brain science. If you are a parent like me with school-aged children, the explosive progress in concussion science has officially become frightening. Over the last ten years, the proof has gotten stronger and stronger that every child who plays a season of tackle football probably suffers long-term brain damage.
That’s the ugly medical truth. Football is not just an organized sport. It is organized interpersonal violence. All the pros of sports go out the window if my child gets brain damaged. And we are finally coming to realize that this is not just a scattered family tragedy. It is a massive American public health problem. Damaging the brains of millions of children is not good for anybody.
In the olden days, we thought the problem was “concussions” — impacts to the head that the child or the coach noticed. Those brain injuries tend to strike just a few players on a team each week. But so-called “concussions” are the tip of the iceberg. EVERY child who plays football suffers hundreds of hits to the head every season, and thousands of body impacts.
We usually don’t think of every tackle and every body impact as a threat to the child’s brain. But every sudden impact makes the brain slosh forward and slam into the skull. That happens whether or not the child’s head is touched, and whether or not the child feels any different.
In other words, concussive brain damage is not something that happens to a few unlucky children. Repeated brain rattling is built into the rules of this popular form of organized interpersonal violence. It strikes every single child who plays.
- Back in the 20th century, neurologists called all those brain-rattlings-withoutsymptoms “sub-concussions.” That’s the wrong word. A concussion is a rattling blow. Every time our children’s bodies stop suddenly, the brain suffers a rattling blow.
- Back in the 20th century, neurologists used to think that so-called “subconcussions” were nothing to worry about. That’s not true. The last decade of evidence proves that brain-rattlingswithout- symptoms (the thousands of unavoidable collisions when you “play” interpersonal violence) may be a major cause for long-term brain damage in children who play football.
- Back in the 20th century, neurologists used to think the brain damage from a blow to the head was pretty much the same from one child to the next. That’s not true. Every single child has a different threshold at which playing football causes permanent brain damage. And we don’t know how to tell which child is most at risk.
Those are the facts. That’s the state of the art of human knowledge. Enough to be very scared for every child football player. Not enough to know the risk for each child.
Again, what on earth should a loving parent do when his or her child asks to play football?
Try to figure out what attracts your child to the game. In most cases, it’s peers. At age seven and eight, our children still listen to us. We can tell them, “If you play, you will probably get brain damage,” and they will hear us. But starting about age nine, kids believe their peers more than they believe us. Then it gets hard. “But Mom! Dad! Henry’s parents let him play!”
In other cases, a child is attracted by an urge for social bonding, or for social climbing–in essence, a desire for local glory. In still other cases, the attraction is the outlet for natural, healthy physical exuberance, or to please a parent, or for seeking an identity as a tough guy, or even for permission to be violent. And there is wishful thinking. Even eight-year-olds dream of NFL careers.
So our first step is to understand what’s driving the red-faced plea: “Let me play! I’ll be fine! Sign the waiver!”
Since every child is a unique and precious individual and every family has its own dynamics, I cannot give you a rule like, “If he says, this, ask him that.” I only suggest that the more we know about our child’s real wishes and imaginations, the better we can talk with him or her. (Talking is WAY better than giving an order without an explanation. That has been proven to trigger risk-taking rebellion.)
Second: Who can we trust?
- Our coaches get money and pride from damaging children’s brains.
- Our pediatricians went to medical school before the danger was discovered.
- There are exceptions; but searching the web is usually as useful as sitting on a toilet filled with snakes.
If you just read the Introduction to our 2019 textbook—the first textbook ever published on concussion—you’ll know more than 97% of American neurologists. It’s 32 pages. It might save your child from a diminished life.
Third: How can we tell if our child’s brain is being damaged?
We can’t. Repetitive rattling may have no immediate effects. But it primes the brain for late life disaster.
- Your child could have hidden brain damage and still get straight A’s.
- Your child could have hidden brain damage and win the Nobel Prize.
- But your child may wind up shuffling and drooling at age 62.
Frankly, the discovery that football probably damages every child’s brain is no surprise. Neurologists have known since 1928 that repetitive brain rattling can cause dementia. The real question is how soon we parents will face the facts, shift gears, and do the right thing for our children— our embodied immortality—our hearts and souls.
Jeff Victoroff, M.D. is a Harvard trained, board certified neurologist and psychiatrist, also certified in Behavioral Neurology and Neuropsychiatry. He serves as Associate Professor of Clinical Neurology and Psychiatry at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California (USC). Dr. Victoroff directed USC’s Traumatic Brain Injury/Neuropsychiatry Clinic at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center for more than a decade, and was one of the five neurologists recruited by former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher to provide care for concussed, demented, former NFL players. His new book, Concussion and Traumatic Encephalopathy: Causes, Diagnosis and Management, is available on Amazon and other fine booksellers.