Evidence of Football Brain Injury Risk Continues to Grow

Two football players facing off.
By Richard Dahl on August 27, 2019 12:00 PM

Parents of America have one more reason to keep their kids off the football field.

In recent years, the high incidence of football concussions has been linked to ongoing brain deterioration, and now a new study has revealed that the dangers of playing football may be even worse.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Rochester Medical Center say that it’s not just the big hits that are bad; a season-long series of routine hits can also cause long-term brain damage.

The researchers studied 38 University of Rochester players over the course of a season by placing accelerometers – devices that measure accelerative force – into their helmets before practices and games. The results: Two thirds of the players’ brains experienced a reduction in white matter by season’s end.

“Our research … is beginning to indicate that accumulation of many sub-concussive hits is instrumental in driving long-term damage in football players’ brains,” said lead author Brad Mahon, an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon.

Declining Participation

The National Federation of State High School Associations reports that the level of participation in high school sports declined in 2018-2019 for the first time in 30 years. But the decline in football has been going on for more than a decade. Just over 1 million high-school students play 11-man football, about a 3-percent drop from the previous year, to the lowest number since 1999-2000.

The impact of the brain-injury research is particularly noticeable on youth football leagues due to strong sentiment by parents to restrict, or even ban, football for kids. A University of Washington School of Medicine survey found that 61 percent of 1,025 parents who were polled nationally favored age restrictions for tackle football. Massachusetts, meanwhile, is seriously considering an outright ban on youth tackle football.

Expanding Litigation

And then there are the lawsuits.

The NCAA has been on the receiving end of what will eventually be some 200 filings from litigants who allege that the NCAA and individual schools knowingly exposed them to risks of brain injury.

There’s also been litigation on the high-school and youth-football front. Last year, a California high school settled a brain injury case for $7.1 million. And a trial has been set to start in January for a closely watched case in California where a mother has filed suit against Pop Warner Little Scholars, claiming that youth football was responsible for the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) that was detected in her son’s brain after he died in a motorcycle accident.

So is the day coming when football will be waving the white flag of surrender? Or might a different flag be waving? According to The New York Times, there are now more 6- to 12-year-olds playing flag football than tackle football.

But is America – and the NCAA and the NFL – ready for football without the violence?

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