A recent study examining the effects of football on former NFL players relating to CTE provided some very disturbing results. Specifically, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, was found in 99% of deceased NFL players’ brains. This is a startling figure, and one that will certainly have a dramatic impact on future safety measures the NFL will employ. In fact, there is growing national concern that these most recent findings only further question how many more deaths need to be witnessed before major changes take place.
What this study means beyond football
The NFL study results are not limited to the NFL, or even football for that matter, as we are still very early in fully understanding the impact of contact sports on brain trauma. Future research studies will continue to study the dangers NFL players will face, but will also include examining other contact sports, including the risks involved for kids involved in youth sports. As more data is accumulated, we may find that CTE risks expand to include more sports, as well as specific concerns for kids.
When we think of “contact sports,” it is important to operationalize the definition so that we know what we are talking about. In the most basic sense, this means any sport that involves physical contact (especially contact that includes head contact). When you expand the definition of contact sports, it practically includes almost every sport kids play, making it important to pay attention to sports that might not traditionally be linked to serious head injuries.
The variables that mitigate head injuries in sports
When it comes to better protecting athletes against brain trauma injuries, there are 3 possible solutions:
- Eliminate the sport altogether. This is the most extreme approach, and probably one that isn’t very realistic. For example, while football is typically the sport most associated with head injuries, it is very unlikely the sport will be eliminated from our culture any time soon.
- Improve sports equipment. In theory, the better the equipment, the better the odds that injuries will be minimized. But using the NFL as an example, it’s hard to argue the league doesn’t already use the world’s most advanced technology when it comes to helmets — yet the league still witnesses extremely high rates of CTE. Real questions must be asked whether it is even possible to develop equipment that can offset and/or absorb hits from athletes today, many of whom are faster, bigger, and stronger than ever before.
- Modify rules. How much can the rules be changed and still keep the game exciting (both for players and fans)? Is it even possible to play a game like football if the on-field contact was dramatically altered?
What this means for kids
Youth and interscholastic sports include more contact sports than just football, and many of these sports do not require helmets (i.e. basketball and soccer are great examples). The point here is not to generate fear, or to over-blow the results from the recent NFL study, but to instead include widen the scope of head injuries and contact sports examples of sports that aren’t always examined — and played by athletes not always studied.
The reality is that kids are also growing bigger, faster, and stronger — and they have on-field collisions, too. We need to continue a healthy dialogue around sports safety, especially at the youth sport level, and continue to evaluate equipment and modify rules. The state of Missouri recently implemented mandates for girl softball pitchers to wear helmets, providing tangible evidence that there are serious efforts being made to better protect kids. Still, questions remain about how much equipment improvements and rule changes can control potential head injuries experienced by student athletes.