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Editorial: Beware of tackle football for young children

Quarterback Jay Cutler (6) and his Chicago Bears teammates open the season Sunday against the Houston Texans. File photo by Jeff Haynes, AP.

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NFL players no longer can plead ignorance. That goes for college players and parents of youth football players, too.

Head injuries are an inherent risk in football. Sure, you can say that about other sports. But football is about hitting and tackling as much as it is about touchdown runs. The possibility of sustaining a blow to the head cannot be ignored.

Heading into season openers this week, every NFL player knows of the risks associated with head trauma, and so does every reasonably informed parent. Players from previous generations may not have understood the dangers, but no player today can say the same. The pros play this entertaining, yet violent game at their own risk. Parents who sign up their kids for youth leagues assume the possibility of injuries on their sons’ (and daughters’) behalf.

But at a minimum, we would say, children should not play tackle football until they are teenagers, when they are arguably old enough to make an informed decision about whether they want to be tackled — or to tackle somebody else. Until then, kids should play flag football.

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By now we know not to take the NFL’s word on safety. The league has a much deserved bad rap for playing down the game’s dangers for years. In the spring, when the NFL’s senior vice president for health and safety, Jeff Miller, conceded to U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, in a round-table discussion that yes, there is a link between concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, it was considered a breakthrough.

The NFL settled with former players who sued over head injuries and so far the courts have upheld the agreement. It is estimated to be worth $1 billion and covers claims for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, known as CTE, and other neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

On its website, the Mayo Clinic says CTE is still not well understood. Scientists surmise that repetitive head trauma likely causes this wasting away of the brain. It is diagnosed during autopsies of deceased individuals and has been found postmortem in dozens of former football players.

Not every football player who suffers head trauma will suffer from CTE, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. There is much work ahead for those studying varying short-term and long-term effects of head injuries to athletes.

But the information that’s out there should make every professional and college football player think hard about their sport. This year and last, two NFL players in their 20s, A.J. Tarpley and Chris Borland, walked away because of concerns related to head injuries.

Scrutiny usually reserved for the NFL and colleges is now cascading to youth and high school teams. Amid mounting concerns about safety, lawsuits and declining enrollment, Pop Warner, the largest youth league in the U.S., this year eliminated kickoffs in games for players between the ages of 5 and 10. It also has reduced contact time in practices.

Last week, a class-action complaint was filed against Pop Warner in California that alleges the organization made misleading claims about safety. Two mothers, whose young-adult sons were diagnosed with CTE after their deaths, brought the suit. Their sons did not play in college or the NFL but on Pop Warner and high school teams.

In July, the New York Times reported that statistics about a reduction in injuries credited to the Heads Up Football program, and promoted by the NFL, were unfounded. Heads Up teaches youth coaches about safety and proper tackling and blocking. The NFL and USA Football, which governs youth football, cited preliminary data to tout a 76-percent reduction in injuries and roughly a 30-percent reduction in concussions. In reality, the Times reported, “the program showed no demonstrable effect on concussions during the study.” Researchers took the blame for providing incomplete data.

So what should parents do? Find out if athletic trainers and physicians are on the sidelines of practices and games. That is a first step in making an informed decision about letting your child play. Some schools, but not all, employ medical personnel. Find out, too, about the program’s protocol for concussion testing and whether baseline tests are done.

Last fall, a judge dismissed a class-action lawsuit against the Illinois High School Association that pushed for these measures. He said that players and their families assume some risk when they sign up.

We couldn’t get an answer last fall from an NFL official and Bears Chairman George H. McCaskey about the appropriate age to begin playing tackle football. Earlier this year, when asked at a news conference whether it was safe for young people to play, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said, “There’s risk in life. There’s risk in sitting on the couch.”

Now imagine you’re on the couch and someone abruptly tackles you to the ground. It’s safe to say the risk of a head injury goes up dramatically.

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