One problem with the "football too dangerous" meme: no evidence--WSJ

Submitted by wolverine1987 on February 3rd, 2013 at 10:39 AM

In a Wall St. Journal article entitled "Football Nanny State,"  the author outlines the growing debate about the safety of football for kids, which has accelerated after Junior Seau and other stories. A growing chorus of football parents and even players say that they would now hesitate to allow their children to play football given the risks of traumatic head injuries. The only problem with this growing opinion is that it, according to the author, is not based upon any evidence--yet:

"Recent studies performed on former longtime NFL players have left no doubt that playing professional football can be hazardous to one's brain—and one's future quality of life. But when it comes to the question of whether the sport is dangerous for kids, it's not that the evidence is inconclusive—there's no evidence whatsoever.

The Mayo Clinic has performed two studies on football and kids. In 2002, after examining 915 football players from elementary and middle schools, it concluded: "the risk of injury in youth football does not appear greater than other recreational or competitive sports." Last year, the Mayo Clinic studied 438 men who played high-school football between 1946 and 1956, when headgear was less advanced. That study found no increased risk of dementia, Parkinson's disease or Lou Gehrig's disease among these players compared with their non-football-playing male classmates."

I quoted this small portion since the Jiournal is subscription only and some may not have access. To be clear, I'm not taking a position on this issue--every parent should be able to decide for themselves if the risks outweigh the benefit for their kids. And more studies to come may provide evidence for that. But I do believe that the push for legislation to actually prevent kids from playing is misguided for kids, and that for adults, the decision should be entirely up to them.…









February 3rd, 2013 at 10:52 AM ^

It was much closer to what we would consider rugby-style tackling today.  I'm not sure that looking at adults who played h.s. football in the 40s and 50s would be particularly illuminating to judge today's risks, where a couple of generations of players have grown up watching "Jacked Up!" videos and think leading with the head is the best way to play the game.

By the way, WSJ being what it is, does tend to call any investigation into workplace or even recreational risks as "nanny statism."  Just take it with a grain of salt.

Oh, and did that study quoted seriously find that there is no greater injury risk in youth football than other sports?  So they're saying kids who play tennis or basketball get injured just as often as football players?  Having played all these growing up... um, there's a credibility issue with that statement.


February 3rd, 2013 at 10:56 AM ^

It is pretty well known in journalism circles that the editorial and news sections at the Journal are seperate, and that the news division plays it pretty well down the middle. And the study references not injury, but risks of brain injury. If that seems to defy credibility with you, contact the Mayo Clinic.


February 3rd, 2013 at 11:09 AM ^

When an article, wherever you place it in the paper, throws the conservative flypaper catchphrase "Nanny State" into the title of the article, it's fair to say that the wall between editorial and news has become blurred at best.  Not that I would ever suggest a Rupert Murdoch owned publication would have anything less than the highest journalistic standards, I'm just sayin'...


February 3rd, 2013 at 11:14 AM ^

and that column contains opinionm (not from the editorial page BTW). but I was adressing your point, which implied that you can't trust it because of the idealogy of the editorial page. That short sighted view is a slipery slope, since it then follows that if the article appeard in the New York Times, many other people could not trust that, since the Times is a liberal editorial board. Feel free to actually read the article though before you trash it, and the sources quoted, which are authorative doctors, not other sports or opinion writers. 


February 3rd, 2013 at 12:52 PM ^

you have no idea, none at all, what you are talking about with regard to the WSJ or journalism. You may not be one, but this statement makes you sound like a political hack that can't distinguish or credit anything or anyone unless they come from your pre-approved spectrum of opinion. I wouldn't dream of discrediting an article from the NYT or other paper known to have a progressive slant if it was served up faithfully with an eye toward starting a dialog, but that's just me.

I subscribe to both the NYT and WSJ, as do a few friends of mine, several of whom are very left oriented, but perhaps they too are taken in by the nefarious  types at the Journal. As have the Pullitzer Prize committes over time, who have awarded many journalism awards to both papers, despite their editorial boards.

I don't believe this article is truth. Nor anywhere in any post did I call it such. I simply read an article I thought was interesting and posted it, taking care to say in my OP that every parent should decide for themselves. But I suppose I had a political agenda in doing so. Yep.


February 3rd, 2013 at 1:05 PM ^

Well, I don't subscribe to the WSJ, but I do have a journalism degree and worked for more than a decade as a reporter and editor. That does not mean that it's not true that I "have no idea, none at all, what [I am] talking about" of course--this is the internet, so I may be a total idiot. But still, my opinion is that this article is slanted crap.


February 3rd, 2013 at 1:23 PM ^

Good points.

I don't think it makes much difference if a headline editor wrote the headline or just tweaked something submitted by the reporters (three of them, actually), though. Everyone who handled the "nanny state" title knew they were playing with something that was loaded, "nanny state" being a 100% political football of a phrase.


February 3rd, 2013 at 4:40 PM ^

Just curious.  How would you describe the present administration?  Left, Center or Right?

It's a serious question because generally speaking people describe others who agree with their particular point of view as being "centrists".  Myself incuded.


February 3rd, 2013 at 5:17 PM ^

And you are the first person I've ever seen, outside the editorialists themselves, or Paul Krugman, that have ever descrubed their work as anything other than liberal or progressive--and not a thing wrong with that BTW, tjhe liberal tradition is old, established, and respected. But just as if someone described the Journal editorials as centrist, they would be, um, in the minority.


February 3rd, 2013 at 2:02 PM ^

DO understand that news outlets have to sell themselves to remain viable. Because of this they have to cater to a target audience. How they report the news will reflect that.


One of the greatest canards of our times  is the idea of an objective news media. Such a thing has not nor ever will exist. Reporting news without bias is essentially impossible. The writing would be so bland that people would need a bottle of No Doz to get through it.

Fox is doing what academics and left-of-center news agencies have been doing for years--skewing the facts towards their point-of-view.

Bias is not nearly as important as the QUALITY of the reporting. A report can be excused for being biased, but there is no excusing shoddy reporting.



February 3rd, 2013 at 9:30 PM ^

Let me guess: if you have a Michigan degree, you got it outside LS&A. Am I right?

Here's why I think that: Fox is not doing what academics have been doing for years. Nobody with any serious exposure to academia and as much as a passing acquaintance with Fox could possibly think that. There is no moral equivalence between Fox and academia. There is no moral or intellectual equivalence between MSNBC and academia. Cable networks are all absolutely full of horseshit, with getting at the truth very far down their agenda. Academia has some fucked up priorities, but getting at the truth is high on the list. Fox and MSNBC are to academia as ESPN is to the Mathlete.


February 4th, 2013 at 1:42 PM ^

I have been reading the WSJ for close to 20 years (ever since I got a sweet student subscription deal as a UM BBA student), so I hvae some experience with it. I would say over the past ~3 years, the separation of the editorial side and new side is not nearly as clear as it once was.

I'll leave it to you to decide if that's good or bad, but in my opinion, it has definitely changed since Murdoch bought it.

To illustrate this point, see this link with some good "headlines" examples from James Fallows:…

(Key quote: "As with two previous examples, here and here, bear in mind that these are news headlines, not the editorial page. Also as in the previous two cases, the play and billing of the WSJ stories (and opposed to the details in the stories themselves) are more "Republican" than in the other two papers (Post and NYT).")


February 3rd, 2013 at 10:50 AM ^

Your last sentence or two is well-reasoned.  I think the ultimate fate of such laws rests with the question of costs for risk management and insurance.   Insurers are going to be less likely to write or make policies of reasonable cost for cash strapped school districts or cash-strapped rec leagues.

Plus, the idea that kids and parents can sign something to fully assume the risk probably won't hold up in court. This is especially true given the ongoing suits involving the NFL and the still unknown outcome of ongoing studies. From a legal perspective you can't ask people to assume the risk of activities where there are risks that are unknown or should have been known by those offering the sport.

With no insurance, no sport.  Michigan football can absorb the costs to get umbrella coverage. Caseville intermediate school district can't.


February 3rd, 2013 at 10:55 AM ^

This is one of my concerns.  I'm afraid that we're going to see fewer and fewer kids playing football because of the negative publicity of concussions, but I feel like kids playing football from, say, 6th grade through 12th grade might not be particularly dangerous.  Obviously, repeated concussions are bad for anyone, but if a kid suffers two or three concussions during his entire school career, I'm not sure that it will affect his long-term cognitive ability.  It seems to be when guys play from a young age until they're 30 or 35 or 37 that the problems get to be too much to handle.

Of course, I'm not a doctor.  I'm just a guy.


February 3rd, 2013 at 11:30 AM ^

Any one concussion has the potential to cause long term cognitive damage...stressing potential. There is no predictive model in order to determine how any one individual will react to a concussion. Anytime you have multiple concussions, no matter how long of a duration in between, the effects can be synergistic. Once again, this all is based on the individual and the size of the concussions.

For me, the danger is in the diagnosis of concussions at that level. Concussions come in all flavors from rather small ones with little cognitive effect to detrimental ones. Asking football coaches to monitor a whole team for small changes in cognitive function is the issue. 

Overall, I doubt you have any serious risk of damage until high school, but with football where hitting is such a huge part in not only the games but practice, the risk even at the lower levels is not the same as other sports. The is compounded by the unpredictibility of the individual in response to a concussion. This answer is partly contributed by a training neurologist.


February 3rd, 2013 at 11:41 AM ^

My school division has a pretty extensive training about concussions, and we're advised to remove kids from practice/play if there's any concern that the student-athlete might have a concussion.  If coaches are into coaching for the right reason (the kids, not the winning), I think concussions are less of a concern.

The problem is coaches who think that winning is everything and that kids should just suck it up and get back out there and play.


February 3rd, 2013 at 11:12 AM ^

so it's not quite clear what the conclusion is, but I don't have the link to the study.  Suspect this is something we won't have an answer until several more cohorts of long, long longitudinal studies are completed.

Brown Bear

February 3rd, 2013 at 11:13 AM ^

The damage happens at young ages too. There just haven't been brains to study as the effects aren't usually noticed until later in life. Brain trauma is brain trauma. I love football but I'm not going to kid myself and act like it isn't a violent game at any age/size.…


February 3rd, 2013 at 11:14 AM ^

Kind of glossed over this study, trying to dismiss it with a relatively weak argument. They said the parents of the study patients suspected there was an issue, but that doesn't change the likely fact that playing high school football caused those problems...

swan flu

February 3rd, 2013 at 11:15 AM ^

I don't understand how the WSJ can say there's no evidence of a link between violent head collisions and CTE. The Boston University study linked by Brown Bear is peer reviewed and quite conclusive.

But I'm not surprised. The WSJ has slightly more credibility than the National Enquirerer. The entire paper is an op. Ed. Piece.

Edit- here is another peer reviewed study that is more in depth than the one linked byBrown Bear

Sorry no hyperlink... iPad.


February 3rd, 2013 at 11:18 AM ^

on the facts, and your opinion, and I am saddened by it. Instead of an honest discussion, which I was hoping to provoke with this article, and during which I stated I respect and endorse the opinion of any parent that decides not to allow their kids to play, instead we get internet types trashing the source because they are on the left or the right. Pity.

swan flu

February 3rd, 2013 at 11:23 AM ^

When a paper claims there is no evidence for something, when there is plenty of evidence, I'm going to call into question the credibility of the paper.

But you can go on thinking that the WSJ is more credible than the Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology if that's what you're into. But you're wrong.

swan flu

February 3rd, 2013 at 12:51 PM ^

I did, it's in my comment above. And now I wash my hands of this entire meaningless conversation.

“To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead.”

-Thomas Payne


February 3rd, 2013 at 2:34 PM ^

the ability or interest to even see an opposing point, much less grant someone else sincerity of purpose or act. Never once, in any of my (too many, for sure) posts here have I once granted the Journal "authority," much less compared it favorably in authority to those journals you site. Never. I simply stated a fact, that the Journal is considered a newspaper of some distinction, having won numerous journalism awards, including Pullitzer Prizes, so that it should not be politically dismissed out of hand by political people, before reading, and having those same people try to dismiss it in others minds before they read it. And I felt the article itself was worthy of posting. That's it. I never once, anywhere, stated that the POV in the article wa authoritive, nor the last word on anything at all. And in fact, I nver once took a position that the article was right, nor that any person here was wrong. not once (except for their politically oriented dismissals of an article they didn't read.

You do not because you see everythng through a political lens, and try to dimiss views that you don't agree with by convieniently disparaging them. You take the positions, and then have the lack of personal insight to slam me for having an agenda or holding up the Journal as an authority. Irony, please meet swan flu.


February 3rd, 2013 at 2:50 PM ^

Unlike a couple of posters here who didn't read the article, I linked and yet bashed it, I read the article provided.

Unfortunately it has nothing to do with the Journal article point (which again, I do not site as authoritative) which is that no evidence--yet--exists linking football to a higher degree of head trauma than other sports, or life itself. The article you and one other person offered says that repetitive headtrauma increases the risks of ALS and other terrible conditions. No one anywhere disputes that point. But that point is different than saying football increases the risk dramatically of obtaining head trauma ALS ot other conditions, particularly amongst Children. Would you grant that the two are different or am I still holding the authority of the Journal above science? 



February 3rd, 2013 at 11:42 AM ^

If you had at least linked to a straight news article of some sort, WSJ or otherwise, instead of to one that editorializes from the get-go with a title that screams "READ ME! I HAVE A POLITICAL AGENDA!!"

It's an important topic, and probably too important to be advanced by columnist with a naked political bent, regardless of what paper it's in.  If the linked article were NYT, but an opinion column instead of a straight news piece, I'd have the same criticism.