There is no cure for chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
According to the CTE Center at the Boston University School of Medicine, the degenerative brain disease is found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma. Football and hockey players are prone to the disease, though it’s not limited to athletes.
Symptoms, according to the CTE Center, “include memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, anxiety, suicidality, parkinsonism, and ... progressive dementia.”
Concussions are a form of trauma linked to the disease, and the injury is one reason the Eau Claire school district and Eau Claire YMCA are making the prudent, proactive measure of dropping tackle football for youth until the eighth grade.
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Participation in the YMCA’s tackle football program has declined more than 50 percent over the last decade, according to a story by the Leader-Telegram’s Lauren French. Beginning this fall, seventh-graders in the schools will play flag football, while the YMCA will no longer offer tackle football to fifth- and sixth-graders. Local officials hope that will draw more youth to the sport.
“It’s not just concern from parents, it’s concern from coaches and players too,” Bonnie Nicolai of the Eau Claire YMCA told French.
The effort has earned the support of the Memorial and North head football coaches.
“Our goal is to increase participation by making it safer,” Kit Schiefelbein, assistant principal at Northstar Middle School, said in the Leader-Telegram story. “Hopefully that will appeal to more students, and when they go to high school, hopefully they’ll be interested in continuing football.”
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Two Democratic state legislators recently introduced the “Safe Youth Football Act” in California. The state “would become the first ... to prohibit minors from playing organized tackle football before high school,” according to a Los Angeles Times story.
The Times editorial board lauded the effort.
“Anyone who endures hits to the head — even those that don’t result in concussions — can suffer irreversible brain damage, in some cases after only one impact, new research has found,” the board said. “Children, whose brains and bodies are still developing, are even more vulnerable.”
And California is not alone. Efforts are under way in New York and Illinois that would ban tackle football for children under age 12.
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A group of neurosurgeons, including Dr. Uzma Samadani, an associate professor in neurosurgery at the University of Minnesota, and other specialists said the link between football and brain injuries may not be as ironclad as advertised.
“The scientific evidence linking youth casual sports play to brain injury, brain injury to CTE, and CTE to dementia is not strong,” a letter from the group published by the Star Tribune states. “We believe that further scientific research and data are necessary. ... This is not to say that head impacts or injuries are desirable — far from it. But there is scientific ambiguity about the prevalence of CTE in the general population in comparison to professional athletes.”
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It’s rarely productive to argue with neurosurgeons, and more research likely is needed, but the letter misses a key point.
A vast majority of our youth will never be paid to play football, which negates the impact a risk-benefit analysis might have. According to recent studies by the National Federation of State High School Associations and the NCAA, out of nearly 1.1 million high school players, only 6.8 percent played in college. Of those, only 1.5 percent advanced to a “major” professional league. And many of those don’t last long due to injury, ability or other variables.
Nearly all of these young players will go on to careers outside of athletics. They’ll be doctors, lawyers, welders, entrepreneurs, nurses, police and so on. Football may be America’s top sport, but it’s not even remotely close to its top vocation.
Measures taken by the Eau Claire school district and YMCA should be applauded as they’ll help ensure our youth have the opportunities to pursue other endeavors when their playing days are over.