The incidence and severity of brain injury is one of the hottest topics in sports media today, and it is creating a storm of near-panic in youth sports — especially football. 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.
As neurosurgeons and early researchers of concussions and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), we are often asked if parents should permit their kids to play football, ice hockey, lacrosse and other contact sports. Our answer is an unqualified yes. The benefits of organized contact sports on childhood and adolescent development far outweigh the risks, given the available medical data.
We are surgeons and researchers who have dedicated much of our lives to pursuing the safer play of contact sports. We are also fathers and former collegiate athletes with a passion for the traditions and lessons learned from participating organized contact sports. These sports make invaluable contributions to character development and future success of children by teaching them teamwork, discipline, self-control and triumph over adversity. These years also provide some of the most precious and long-lasting memories parents make with their children.
Organized sports are a bulwark against the very real health risks associated with childhood obesity such as diabetes, hypertension and cardiac disease. These benefits are critical to the health and development of our youth and they serve to show the need for a more balanced approach to how we address the safety of our kids playing contact sports. Unfortunately, participation in youth football nationally and high school football in many regions of the country have substantially fallen in recent years.
Why the near-hysteria about concussions? Perhaps it’s the heartbreak effects of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy on beloved athletes, such as our friend and NFL Hall of Famer, the late Mike Webster. People wonder how kids are safe if the professionals are not. It is a fair point, at first glance, but the data tell us otherwise.
Each year, more than 3 million kids play youth football; a million more play in high school; about 70,000 play at the college level; and about 2,500 are professional football players. 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. Research has not quantified the almost-certain risk factors, aside from concussions such as genetics, pharmacological and toxicological factors. So, is there a CTE epidemic and is withdrawing participation in organized contact sports the remedy? Our answers are no and no.
Fear has created a market for concussion information and products, and the media is overreacting to sensational but unsubstantiated pronouncements and factoids. The anti-football hype is so prevalent that even Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, George Will, asserted, “For all players who play five or more years, life expectancy is less than 60; for linemen it is much less,” without as much as a footnote. It’s a shocking statistic but it’s not an accurate one. Research shows that retired NFL players are living as least as long as their peers and have lower rates of cancer and heart disease.
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. Equipment innovations in energy-dispersing pads, telemedicine and technology to reduce brain cavitation inside the skull — known as “brain slosh” — will enhance the safety for young athletes. Schools and youth leagues are adopting baseline neurocognitive tests, such as Immediate Post Athletic Concussion Testing, to help physicians evaluate possible concussions for athletes. Telemedicine solutions will soon be able to link any sideline in America with concussion-certified medical professionals using helmet sensors and a tablet.
We believe in medical technology advancements, thoughtful rule changes and safety protocols to protect players of all ages. Increased levels of public and private investment in concussion prevention and management research 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 benefits of sports.
bull; Joseph C. Maroon is the vice chairman of the Department of Neurological Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and is the team neurosurgeon for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Julian E. Bailes Jr. is the chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery and co-director of the NorthShore Neurological Institute, and is a neurological consultant to the NFL Players’ Association.