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Professional Opinion

Should there be a moratorium on high school football?

Protecting players from brain injury must take precedence
Mark A. Serva is an educational consultant and an associate professor at the University of Delaware.  
Mark A. Serva is an educational consultant and an associate professor at the University of Delaware.  

With the latest season of high school football concluded, now is perhaps an ideal time to consider whether or not there should be another. The game’s big hits generate excitement, but a growing body of research indicates that the human brain is not equipped to absorb such violent impacts.

Microscopic tears and plaque (dubbed chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE) gradually diminish the capacity of players’ brains. Early symptoms include dizziness and confusion, which can eventually progress to memory loss, tremors, speech impediments and even dementia.

The research

This past summer, researchers at Boston University studied the brains of former high school, college and NFL players. The sample was small and biased toward higher levels of CTE, but the results were disconcerting nonetheless. Out of 111 pro players, all but one had severe cases of CTE.

In addition, severe CTE was present in 91 percent of the athletes who played football only in high school and college. One study author commented, “That means they most likely retired before the age of 25, and we still are seeing in some of those individuals very severe repercussions.”

The study’s findings also indicate that playing only high school football can result in cognitive impairment. One out of 5 high school players in the study had CTE. In addition, the researchers found high levels of depression, memory loss and even behavioral impairments among athletes who had even mild cases of CTE.

Over half reported suicidal thoughts—in fact, the most common cause of death for the mild CTE cases was suicide. And players who started playing before the age of 12 were significantly more likely to exhibit cognitive damage than those who started later.

When … if at all?

These findings suggest that there may be no safe amount of time for children and teenagers to play tackle football. To promote the well-being of our young adults, there can be only one conclusion: Public school districts must suspend their financial and moral support of tackle football until the sport can be demonstrated to be safe.

Even professional players are urging caution. Drew Brees, the New Orleans Saints quarterback, allows his kids to play only flag football, given the evidence. Tom Brady’s father has said he isn’t sure he would have let his son play if he knew how dangerous the sport is.

Players are increasingly retiring before the age of 30 to mitigate the cumulative damage. As Mark Murphy, president of the Green Bay Packers, recently said, “Participation [in youth football] has dropped, and there’s concern among parents about when is the right age to start playing tackle, if at all.”

Taking action

The quick rebuttal is to discount the Boston University study, given its small sample size and likely bias. Some of your school’s alumni will undoubtedly be up in arms and point out that everything in life has risks. Others will say the evidence is lacking and we should not take action until more is known.

But these arguments miss the point. More work into the causes and repercussions of CTE needs to be done, but the study’s findings demand that we err on the side of caution. Inaction will simply expose teenagers to continued risk of injury.

School administrators should set an example by relying on scientific evidence—not public pressure—to make difficult policy decisions. And, of course, our schools have a moral obligation to nurture students’ cognitive development—not to promote an outlet that potentially damages it.

Until science can provide more insights into the nature of CTE, the benefit of the doubt must favor the safety of our students. Such an action puts science and the safety and well-being of children first.

Mark A. Serva is an educational consultant and an associate professor at the University of Delaware.