Doctors Say Youth Football Safe for Young Players

February 5, 2015

Youth football season is just around the corner and as a new group of young football players prepare to strap on a helmet questions continue to be raised about the neurological safety of children playing the sport.

Youth football season is just around the corner and as a new group of young football players prepare to strap on a helmet questions continue to be raised about the neurological safety of children playing the sport.

In a piece published in Athletic Business Joseph C. Maroon, vice chairman of the Department of Neurological Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and Julian E. Bailes Jr. from the Department of Neurosurgery and co-director of the North Shore Neurological Institute, weighed in with their opinions on the topic.

While there are concerns about young athletes suffering from concussions and other neurological concerns, the authors said, “We worry that the public’s misunderstanding of the available medical research is the gravest threat facing organized contact sport at the youth and high school levels.”

Concerns about player safety are prevalent not only on the gridiron, but also on the ice, and other sports fields with parents growing more and more concerned about whether their children should play contact sports.

“Our answer is an unqualified yes,” the authors said. “The benefits of organized contact sports on childhood and adolescent development far outweigh the risks, given the available medical data.” As an example of these benefits the authors cited the lessons players learn in areas like “teamwork, discipline, self-control, and triumph over adversity.”

However, with parents weighing their perceived risks with the rewards the authors noted, “participation in youth football nationally and high school football in many regions of the country have substantially fallen in recent years.”

Even with research pointing to the overall safety of contact sports for children, the authors said news stories about former professional athletes suffering from various neurological conditions can overshadow the benefits for young players. According to their research more than 3 million children play youth football with one million of those taking their talents into high school, 70,000 progressing to college and just 2500 playing professionally.

“The medical literature on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy reveals that in the past 10 years a total of 63 football players were diagnosed with CTE, almost all professional athletes, out of approximately 44 million players.”

“Fear has created a market for concussion information and products, and the media is overreacting to sensational but unsubstantiated pronouncements and factoids,” the authors added. “On the other hand, parental concern has instigated refinements in practice styles, rule changes, training and protective equipment such as limits on checking in hockey and improved tackling technique in football.”

Overall the authors said due to a variety of factors there are mechanisms in place to ensure the safety of players to as great of an extent as can be expected.

“We believe in medical technology advancements, thoughtful rule changes and safety protocols to protect players of all ages,” they said. “Increased levels of public and private investment in concussion prevention and management should be a national priority. Finally, the media and the public have an opportunity to refocus their attention away from fear and toward a more balanced approach, preserving the physical and character development of sports.”

Maroon also serves as team neurosurgeon for the Pittsburgh Steelers while Bailes is a neurological consultant for the National Football League Players’ Association.