To Football or Not to Football?

That is the question. The question I get asked almost as much as what supplements someone should be taking (which is a totally separate blog post that’ll come later).

I’m gonna start this post with some facts before I get into my opinion on football. Football is a dying sport. Childhood enrollment in youth leagues has steadily declined over the last decade and continues to decline, either because children are finding other interests like STEM activities or other sports, or because parents are becoming acutely aware of the physical impact football can have on their child’s development. Sustaining one concussion, whether it’s from football, a car accident…. whatever, has been linked to an increase in anxiety and irritable behavior in some children; however, contact sports were the biggest cause of concussions with football being a big perpetrator.

It’s also common knowledge that the NFL is being sued by former players for promoting a “suck it up or you don’t get paid” attitude and for not providing treatment for these former players when they present with neurological disorders likely related to their time playing football.

And then we have the emergence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a serious brain disorder that is caused by repeated blows to the head, which results in Alzheimer-like plaques developing on the brain creating a whole host of serious mental illness. Cases where former football players engaged in violent behavior or ended their lives because of CTE have propelled the injuries the brain sustains in football to the forefront of the media, Aaron Hernandez being the most notable. There is an excellent podcast on him called Gladiator that I highly recommend.

Not everyone’s brain is created equally. Someone can sustain one, or even a few concussions and experience minimal to no adverse effects, while others get one concussion and may have long-term damage. The big conundrum is… we can’t tell which brain you or child has. You may be fine playing football or playing football and sustaining one concussion may lead to serious consequences. It isn’t until after the concussion(s) have happened that we realize there is a problem and, in some cases, that’s when it’s too late. Even CTE can’t be formally diagnosed without a brain autopsy.

I definitely struggle with the football thing because, as a neuropsychologist, my answer is a resounding no. Nobody should be playing contact sports. Our bodies were not designed to sustain brut force hits that cause our brains to rattle around in our skulls. Yes, I realize that helmets have come a long way, but they only stop the skull from sustaining damage. They don’t stop the brain from sliding against the inside of skull causing axonal sheering, nor do they stop the brain from coming into contact with the skull following a tackle. Remember, the brain has a lot of protection and is held tightly in place by the spinal cord, but it’s still free floating the cerebrospinal fluid within the skull.

However as a parent, I understand the tradition of football. I understand the excitement of watching your child excel at something they enjoy and I love the feeling of cheering them on when they do succeed.

But, then again, is a game really worth the risk? The choice is up to you.

Let me know what you think it the comments section.