Concussion expert: Should we ban tackle football before the age of 12?
The movement to ban tackling under 12 is a reaction to research that has reported some associations and guesses but does not prove a child will have greater brain impairment or CTE. In fact, there has been other research to the contrary. (Star-Ledger file photo)
By Rosemarie Scolaro Moser
Rosemarie Scolaro Moser, PhD is the director of the Sports Concussion Center of New Jersey and author of "Ahead of the Game: The Parents' Guide to Youth Sports Concussion" (Dartmouth College Press).
I am a longstanding ice hockey and off-road cycling mom. My son has advanced to auto racing. I am a neuropsychologist who began researching youth concussion in the 1990s before it was a hot topic of pro-sports and Hollywood producers.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, is associated with repeated brain injury through contact or collision sports. CTE is a syndrome that affects how the brain functions, with a progressive deterioration of thought, emotion and behavior. However, reports of CTE have not always accurately informed the public, leading to misconceptions and unnecessary anxiety.
Now, states across the nation are proposing legislation to restrict tackle football prior to the age of 12, claiming that it is associated with CTE. New Jersey has joined suit with legislation last month (A3760).
This movement is a reaction to research that has reported some associations and guesses but does not prove that if you play contact football before age 12 you will have greater brain impairment or CTE. In fact, there has been other research to the contrary to indicate no evidence of greater brain impairment for those who played pre-high school football. The latter research has had less hype.
I propose we consider the facts and make informed choices based on the data, rather than misinformation.
There is no scientifically validated research that proves that participation in youth sports will result in CTE. No current studies confirm the hypothesis, per Dr. Gerry Gioia of Children's National Health System.
We need more controlled, larger prospective research studies to better understand CTE.
Not all athletes with multiple brain traumas develop CTE.
There are cases of CTE in non-athletes with no history of brain trauma.
The suicide rate in retired professional NFL players is less than that of men in the general population.
Playing competitive professional football, with repeated subconcussive head blows, is a much different scenario than that of a youth in community or school sports.
Many factors can be associated with CTE beside multiple head injuries, such as genetic, physical health, mental health, behavior, risky health behaviors and habits.
As a sports concussion specialist, I see numerous elite and professional athletes with histories of multiple concussions who are as sharp as a tack and have no residual problems. I also see many recovered youth (and their worried parents) who develop anxiety disorders because they believe they have CTE because they heard it in the news.
If we pass such a bill and tackling begins at age 12, might we be increasing the injury risk? Around puberty, children develop at different rates. One 12-year-old might be stronger and larger than another 12-year-old. Is that when tackling should be introduced? Or is it better to start teaching such skills when children are less strong, lighter, and more equal in size?
Seems it's easier to restrict youth sports than to fund programs that youth. Where is the accountability to determine if all New Jersey schools are even complying with the current concussion law? How do we tolerate the understaffing of certified athletic trainers (ATCs) in schools who cannot cover multiple sports, practices, and games occurring simultaneously? What about the lack of ATCs in middle school sports? The majority of kids in community or non-school sports experience little to no safety oversight by health care professionals or ATCs.
Brain injury is serious and we can reduce the risk by providing athletes with:
Proper, effective equipment,
State of the art skill training and development,
Well-trained coaches and athletic personnel,
Reduced contact practices and games,
Active promotion of good sportsmanship,
Strict compliance with rules and safety prevention,
Enforced concussion programs, and
Access to high quality onsite health care sport oversight.
We must change the culture of youth sports, with zero tolerance for aggression, a 100 percent commitment to preventing harm, and a full appreciation that youth sports are not "professional sports.
I greatly appreciate legislators' efforts to keep our youth safe. The medical research on concussion and CTE has a long way to go, but banning tackle football before the age of 12 does not fix the problem of youth concussion.