Q+A: Changes Are Coming to Youth Football. Will They Make the Game Any Safer?

youth-football-stuart-seeger-flikr
youth-football-stuart-seeger-flikr
According to new rules, youth football players can no longer use the “three-point stance” (pictured), a body position that allows for more power off the line. Instead, players will start each play in a crouching position.  (Stuart Seeger / flickr)

A future without Super Bowls sounds unimaginable, but amid growing concerns about football’s connection to head injuries, the sport’s pool of young players seems to be shrinking.

Citing declining participation and public perception that the game is not safe for children, the national governing body for amateur football will introduce a number of radical changes to the game this fall.

According to The New York Times and NPR, changes to the game will include:

  • Fewer players: Each team will have six to nine, instead of 11 on the field.
  • A smaller field: It will shrink from 100 yards to 40.
  • Kickoffs and punts will be eliminated.
  • Players will start in a crouching position instead of a “three-point stance.”
  • There will be no special teams.
  • Coaches must ensure players of equal size are matched up against each other.

 

In a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed last January, Drexel University College of Medicine faculty weighed in on the alarming rate of a degenerative disease, called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, found in the brains of deceased NFL players. The co-authors stressed that more science is needed to fully understand the long-term impacts of sports-related concussions.

I checked back in with the experts to hear their take on the new youth football rules.

Eugene Hong, MD, is a sports medicine doctor and associate dean for primary care and community health. He studies injury prevention, concussions and mental health care in athletes.

Ramesh Raghupathi, PhD, is a neuroscientist and professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy. His lab focuses on the cognitive and emotional effects of mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) and repeated concussions in adolescent animals. He is also seeking to understand the differences in concussion symptoms between boys and girls.

Do you think the changes proposed by USA Football will significantly lessen the cognitive dangers associated with head injuries from playing football at a young age?

Hong: It remains to be seen if these changes will make the sport safer, including reducing the risk for injury. Also, we need more research into whether there are any long-term health consequences to playing youth football, including cognitive consequences.

Raghupathi: Yes, I believe it will make a difference. Starting in the crouching position (rather than the three-point stance) will promote the idea of tackle with the shoulder rather than the head. Removing kickoff and punts would mean that kids will be less likely to run into each other.

What are some of the long-term dangers of repeated sub-concussive blows to the head that do not rise to the level of a full-on concussion?

Raghupathi: This is an area of intense study and some controversy. We cannot define what a “sub-concussive” blow is — it’s been defined preliminarily as a blow that does not cause acute neurologic problems. There have been no complete biomechanical studies to define the tolerance of brain tissue to these types of impact. Once we have a better handle on the threshold, then we may be able to say whether multiple impacts can affect the brain. The biggest questions that we still face are, “how many is too many?” and “what is the appropriate interval between impacts?”

What are the short-term dangers of concussions for a young athlete?

Hong: Some of the short-term symptoms of a concussion include: physical symptoms, like headache and disorientation; cognitive symptoms, like confusion or not feeling like one’s normal self; sleep disturbances, like being overly sleepy or not being able to sleep well; and mood symptoms, like feeling one’s mood goes up and down more than usual. The possible complications of concussion in an athlete include:

  • Risk of having prolonged symptoms if not diagnosed and managed properly
  • Risk of having developing post-concussion syndrome
  • Risk of developing second-impact syndrome, a potentially fatal injury to the brain

Is it more dangerous to suffer from head injuries as a child/teenager than as an adult?

Raghupathi: The dogma is that the younger brain can “rebound,” but that has been questioned. The biggest problem is the head injuries in the developing human can affect the process of normal brain development, leading to misguided circuitry. This has the potential to lead to altered function as adults.

Would you argue that youth tackle football should be eliminated entirely? Why or why not?

Hong: This is a tough question. On one hand, we want to have sports be as safe as possible. On the other hand, we as sports medicine professionals want to encourage people of all ages to be physically active. The risks of physical inactivity are as real as the risks of injury in sports. These two competing risks should be balanced against one another. I think this discussion should be in the public realm, and should be informed by what we know in the medical and scientific literature. We need more research in the medical literature in regards to what are the long-term health consequences of playing youth football.

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