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An October poll by HBO’s “Real Sports” and Marist College echoed the concern. A third of respondents said links between football and long-term brain injury made them less likely to allow their son to play football. Even more — 56 percent — believed that long-term brain-injury risk was an “important factor” in whether they allowed their son to play football.

These are the changing attitudes Dustin Fink encounters each day. An athletic trainer in Illinois, he tracks the issue at The Concussion Blog. The recent comments of two fathers Mr. Fink thought were hard-core football supporters shocked him. They weren’t going to let their sons play tackle football until high school.

“I’ve never seen dads admit as much until now,” Mr. Fink said.

He is far from anti-football, but reached a similar conclusion about his two young sons. Until high school, they’ll stick with flag football.

“It’s a bloodsport, but in the proper context it can be played,” Mr. Fink said. “I love football. I don’t want it going anywhere. I’m not trying to ruin the sport — I’m trying to save it.”

Mr. Fink points to the inherent contradiction of the most attention about brain injuries, the strictest protocols, the most studies, the most education being directed at professionals — the smallest population — while millions of youth players have the loosest regulation. The NFL, for instance, limits full-contact practices to 14 during the regular season, employs strict procedures for players to return from concussions and has an unaffiliated neurologist on the sideline at each game in addition to the usual platoon of athletic team doctors, trainers and emergency medical personnel.

“At the youth level, you’re lucky to get someone’s mom who is a nurse on the sideline,” said Mr. Fink, who believes athletic trainers should be mandatory at high schools offering collision sports. “Football won’t live on forever with the way it’s currently constructed, that’s flat-out fact in my mind.”

Measuring depth of damage

At least six high school football players died this year after on-field collisions. The tragedies involve a small fraction of the million-plus participants, but point to the growing body of studies about the impact of head injuries among youngsters.

The Institute of Medicine said high school football players were twice as likely as their collegiate counterparts to sustain concussions and that football had the highest such rate of any high school sport. Between 4 percent and 20 percent of high school football players will sustain a brain injury over the course of one season, the American Association of Neurological Surgeons estimated. Players as young as 7 years old sustain head blows on a par with high school players and adults, researchers at the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences found.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported football as the most common reason for emergency room visits by children for nonfatal traumatic brain injuries from 2001 to 2009. That doesn’t count undiagnosed concussions or ones deemed too mild for a hospital trip.

Dr. Cantu hopes for a 10- to 15-year study to quantify the long-term impact such collisions have on youth players.

“I fear the incidence is much higher than we ever believed,” he said.

The doctor, a senior adviser to the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee and co-founder of the Sports Legacy Institute, isn’t shy about his belief flag football should replace the tackle version until age 14. The age is admittedly arbitrary, an attempt to steer children toward things that don’t hit back as their brains develop.

“Some people understand the issues,” Dr. Cantu said. “Other people would wish we’d never brought up the subject. I totally understand it. If USA Football and Pop Warner go away, you have a lot of people who aren’t going to have jobs.”

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