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VOL. 41 | NO. 30 | Friday, July 28, 2017

Should children play football?

NFL chief medical officer says yes; More parents say no

By John Glennon

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It was the second concussion that made the decision an easy one for Brentwood parent Chris Hulshof.

His son, Alex, had suffered his first concussion playing football as an 11-year old, but Hulshof had been willing to give things a second chance, reasoning that the concussion had been a fluke play that wasn’t likely to occur again.

Two years later, however, Alex took a wallop while playing for Sunset Middle School, suffering a helmet-to-helmet collision that resulted in a more severe concussion. This time, there was dizziness, sickness and a trip to the emergency room for precautionary measures.

“It wasn’t the little one the first one was, if any of them are ever really little,” Hulshoff says. “So, my wife (Valerie) and I decided at that point that ‘No, we’re not going to (let him play tackle football).’

“He keeps begging to play again. But I tell him I have to protect his head more than I’m willing to allow him to play football.”

All over Tennessee and across the rest of America, parents are weighing decisions on the benefits of youth tackle football versus the health risks – specifically because of head injuries.

The concussion issue that’s earned so much attention on the NFL level – thanks to lawsuits, brain studies, movies and documentaries – appears to be making an impact on the youth level, as well.

An in-depth article on concussions in sbnation.com earlier this year stated that youth participation in football nationwide has declined 27.7 percent among kids aged 6-14 since 2010.

Alex Hulshof, 14, gave up football – at his parents’ insistence – after suffering two concussions.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

In addition, “Sports Illustrated’’ reported in March of 2016 that participation in high school football had declined nationwide in six of the previous seven years, and that it was down 2.5 percent overall since 2008-09.

But the trend of steering kids clear of contact football isn’t universal.

Brentwood’s Travis Dunlap, for instance, gave both of his kids the go-ahead to play tackle football this year.

An assistant professor of nursing at Vanderbilt University, Dunlap says he and wife Beth were on the fence about their decision at first. But after making sure that team helmets, equipment and technique training were up to their standards, the couple gave their boys a thumbs-up.

Will, a 14-year-old heading into eighth grade, will be trying out for his school team this season, while Andrew, an 11-year-old going into sixth grade, chose to stick to flag football this year.

“We’re certainly aware of the risks and everything, but I think there’s risk in any sport,” Dunlap points out. “A lot of us parents had discussions about [letting the kids play tackle football]. We’d talk about how we played it when we were younger, so we figured, ‘Let them try it.’’’

The NFL’s take

So, who’s right when it comes to deciding whether or not to let a child play tackle football these days?

The Hulshof family, from left,  Aby (11), Valerie (mom), Alex (14), Chris (dad), Hannah (12) and Averey (13). Alex suffered two concussions and no longer plays football, which has been difficult for him.. “He keeps begging to play again,” his dad says. “But I tell him I have to protect his head more than I’m willing to allow him to play football.” 

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

One of the top authorities on sports-related concussions is Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s recently appointed chief medical officer. A Franklin resident, Sills has served as both the co-director of Vanderbilt’s Sports Concussion Center since 2011 and as a professor of Neurological Surgery and Orthopedic Surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Sills’ three sons played youth football at some point before moving to different sports.

“I often get asked if I would let my kids play football and the answer is, ‘Yes, if they were passionate about it and good enough to do it,’’’ Sills says.

“But I, as a parent, would want to make sure that they had proper equipment, they were in a situation with good coaches who were trained at what to look for (regarding potential head injuries) and that they were teaching proper techniques.”

Sills points to the NFL’s partnership with USA Football and its Heads Up Football program, which teaches coaches about proper tackling, proper blocking techniques and proper technique for recognizing kids that might be concussed.

The NFL encourages youth league commissioners, as well as middle and high school athletic directors, to make sure their football coaches are USA Football certified.

But Sills notes that the league continues to research more ways to make the game even safer for youngsters.

“I do think that there is a lot of room for rule changes and for technique enforcement at various ages,” Sills adds.

“For example, in youth ice hockey in Canada, there have been changes made in that game about body-checking, head-checking, things like that, and that’s obviously created increased margins of safety. So, I think that we certainly continue to look at those types of innovations.”

Sills also cautions parents who think they won’t have to worry about concussions in any sport except football.

“In the fall, as a practicing doctor, I see almost as many soccer players who have concussions as I do football players,” Sills points out. “That’s not to try to equate the sport in terms of level of play, but the point is that concussions can occur in any sport.”

What age is best?

Another question is when should children start playing tackle football?

Sills, who says he doesn’t remember at what age his children started playing, says there are “no hard and fast rules here,” and that the decision “depends on many factors and typically requires input of a medical provider skilled in these issues.

“We still lack good data on exact age recommendations,” he adds. “I would emphasize that youth football has many forms – flag, touch, 7 on 7, and tackle – and so ‘football’ participation is a broad term here. Overall message is that we want kids to be active and that team sports play a vital role in teaching many great lessons.”

Plenty of leagues in the area, including the Tennessee Youth Football League, have divisions for children as young as 5 years old.

“Personally, I think a child can start when they’re 5,” says Nate Shearon, president of the Blackman Youth Football Association in the TNYFL.

“But I think the parents should do their homework. Make sure it is a program that is doing everything the right way to make sure your percentages of not getting injured are high. Look into the program, talk to the president and board members, and find out what they’re doing to make sure your child is safe or has the best opportunity to stay safe.”

Former Titans defensive end Dave Ball disagrees.

He won’t allow his three boys – ages 10, 8 and five – to play tackle football until the ninth grade. They’ll compete in flag football until then. That’s the route Ball took as a youngster, and he says he believes it’s a good approach, allowing kids’ bodies to mature before they hit one another.

“There’s no smoking gun scientifically of a right or wrong answer to this question, so I’m just going on what I’ve seen and experienced,” adds Ball, who suffered several concussions during an eight-year NFL career.

“But I would say that the G-forces in football, especially in points of contact like the helmet, are very extreme, more extreme than what people would know about.

“You look at a Pop Warner football team practice or play and see how many times their head snaps around or they fall down. This is straight opinion, but I just don’t think it’s healthy to subject the kids to that kind of brain rattling, if you will.”

One of Ball’s former teammates with the Titans, Gerald McRath, counters with an interesting question: If a youngster who has never played tackle football suddenly joins teammates who have, is he at risk?

“You’re expecting that kid to just jump in and play at the same speed on a level where the contact is going to be different,” McRath adds.

“Your body might not be used to it, and you don’t know how to protect yourself because they haven’t been taught the proper fundamentals – things like how to tackle, block, stuff like that.”

Sills said he’s not aware of any scientific evidence that shows what age is safe – and what age not safe – to begin playing tackle football. That’s why he advises parents to take a common-sense approach to the situation.

“One of the points that sometimes gets lost is just the differences in size and skill level of kids at different ages,” Sills points out.

“We can find a 12-year-old kid that’s already shaving and looks very mature. Then you can find another 12-year-old that barely weighs 65 pounds. They’re quite a difference physically.

“You’re not going to want to just use age alone, but sort of use physical maturation and skill level in trying to make sure we match up kids. These are complex decisions, and parents have to weigh the overall body of evidence.”

Reach John Glennon at glennonsports@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.

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