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 1:13 PM ^

... this article feels political.  Coming off of the president's comments and dropping phrases like "nanny state" seem like good signals.  

That's not my problem, though, as it is an opinion piece.  Like most columnists, he has written a controversial piece that takes too conclusive a stance by dismissing rather brazingly existing evidence/studies.  A better article would have been citing all the studies available, encouraging parents (including the president) to do their own research, and make their own opinions.  

Sigh... why can't news just be news.  


February 3rd, 2013 at 2:06 PM ^

Others would object to the endless steam of NYTimes and huffington post links posted regularly on this site.  Yet for the most part, if the content of the article is relevant to a topic discussed at length on this site, posters put aside their vomitous political leanings and debate the issue at hand. 


February 3rd, 2013 at 11:15 AM ^

In another study, Virginia Tech actually did a study of linear and rotational acceleration involved in impacts in youth football (7 and 8 year olds in the study) and compared it to high school and college level play. 


The second to last sentence of the abstract, which you can see in detail in the data:

"Although less frequent, youth football can produce high head accelerations in the range of concussion causing impacts measured in adults."

They actually did this utilizing data from the HIT system installed in the helmets of youth football players, so it is intriguing to see the impact characterized like this. The youth football impacts were skewed towards the low end, but linear acceleration in particular was similar to the median acceleratrion of hits experienced even by college players (but not  nearly as hard at the extreme end obviously). 

It's definitely worth a look. 


February 3rd, 2013 at 11:25 AM ^

While the reasons for their respective declines were different I do think it's enlightening to look at the year 1950 and what sports were "most popular" that year as measured by live attendance and TV viewership.  They were:

1. Baseball

2. Boxing

3. Horse Racing

Today I believe (and I dont have a direct source so I accept that I may be proven incorrect) that the top three are:

1. Football

2. Basketball


If you asked a person back in 1950 if they could ever imagine both football and basketball eclipsing baseball in popularity I'm sure they would think you were insane.  So could the future hold a spot without footall as we know it today?

History would say it's not only possible -it's probable.


February 3rd, 2013 at 12:53 PM ^

really changed in the last 25 years with ESPN and other video featuring big hits. NFL DBs routinely launch themselves to knock down a runner rather than wrap-up. Kids copy this "kill shot" form.

Dr Jeffery Kutcher, neurologist at UM Medical and a consultant to the UM ootball program, was quoted on the topic of concussion prevention as saying, "The point is not to emphasize hitting, but tackling."

Thankfully, UM is on the leading edge with this topic and Hoke publicly states high concern for the health of athletes.


February 3rd, 2013 at 1:15 PM ^

I believe you are exactly right. The game would be changing even if brain injuries weren't becoming the primary driver of change, but the brain injury issue is going to drive bigger changes at a faster pace. Technology and rule changes may make the game safer and will definitely change the form--kick-offs, for instance, are probably going the way of the Dodo pretty soon. Meanwhile, plenty of parents are right now deciding it's not worth the risk to the kids to let them play the game. 


February 3rd, 2013 at 3:48 PM ^

Lots of hockey people also suggest this is the way to go to make that sport safer. Guys never used to aim for the head, whereas now it is the preferred checking style  (see Richards, Brad).

Just possible that the ol boys knew something we didn't?

However, do football players from the 50's-60's live longer and more brain-straight (?) than players of the late 70's-80's-90's? Wondering.


February 3rd, 2013 at 12:00 PM ^

steroids. Bulkier, faster players is what makes it so relevant in the pros. No one seems to want to discuss the correlation between roids/PEDs and concussions. Goodell talking about testing for HGH makes me want to laugh. It's making him (and everyone associated with the league) rich. PEDs are going nowhere and as long as they don't, neither is the head injury epidemic in the NFL.


February 3rd, 2013 at 12:01 PM ^

that there's a misreading of the lay of the land. Proving that football is dangerous will not be necessary or even likely tried. Citing evidence that it isn't (assuming such evidence exists) will have little effect in the court of public opinion. One NFL player questioning it is enough to overshadow any clinical study. But more importantly, nobody's ever going to file criminal charges against a football organization claiming some sort of negligence that must be proven beyond reasonable doubt.

The legal precedent will be in civil court, where the argument will be that the NFL knew about the potential danger/risk and did not A. inform players who could make a decision based on that information and B. did not act on its information to make the game safer for its employees. This will be in front of a jury where players and their wives can tell the story, and while we may not be immediately sympathetic to millionaires, the jury only has to be more sympathetic to them than to the billionaires being sued.

A couple of cases won, and insuring football programs below the revenue level of the NFL will likely become prohibitive. Game over if some NCAA players successfully sue their alma mater. And long-term, the game might be over as parents and kids decide against football. I know a young man who did the research himself and decided not to sign up for football (no parental pressure). He's sticking with soccer and basketball.


February 3rd, 2013 at 12:01 PM ^

These are from Purdue's site, not the actual journal articles, so bear that in mind. You can find the journals if you want.

The studies were done on high school players in Lafayette, and they suggest a far greater role of "sub-concussive" contacts in brain impact. As a parent, this is more concerning, especially as players are using their heads in contact in all sorts of ways that I don't think they used to do. Just imagine how many times the head of a lineman gets contact in a game. 

Is this conclusive? Not yet, but it is suggestive and concerning.

I'm sometimes thankful that my son is now in high school and never expressed interest in playing football - not a decision I had to worry about.


February 3rd, 2013 at 12:54 PM ^

this article from about 2 years ago:…

I'm going to echo Sopwith's point: if you look at old college or NFL films from the 50s and focus on the tackling, the difference between the game then and today is huge. Virtually nobody leads with their head, and virtually nobody tries to take a ball-carrier down with just a "kill shot"—it's boring, old-fashioned form tackling whose purpose is simply to pull the ball-carrier to the ground, not disable him for the rest of the season.

I'm not naively suggesting that there were never any blows to the head or that football wasn't a violent collision sport back then, but the films don't lie—it's a different game now.


February 3rd, 2013 at 1:30 PM ^

So the author of the article thinks that football is only dangerous on a professional level?

So somehow the sport is magically safe because of the wizard spells youth football, high school, and college coaches cast on their players?

CTE is caused by repeated trauma to the brain. If you play football from the time you are 6 through high school, odds are you've done a bit of damage to your noggin, regardless of whether it was enough damage to cause any major cognitive disorders. 

It's not like professional football players were birthed from pods and suddenly started playing football at the age of 22.


February 3rd, 2013 at 3:39 PM ^

My point is that it is at best dishonest to say that the author is relying on a wizard to explain why football is dangerous for NFL players but not youth football players

im not commenting on whether the size difference is sufficient to prove the author's point, just that there is no need to resort to straw men when an actual argument exists

Blue in Yarmouth

February 4th, 2013 at 8:15 AM ^

pediatric medice, but I think your belief here is wrong. From an anatomical standpoint kids aren't a lot more fragile than adults, in fact, they are the opposite. As you age your bones become more rigid and thus prone to breaks and fractures. When you are young your bones have a much more elastic quality. Now that doesn't change one's propensity for getting concussed playing football, but it does challange the idea that kids are more fragile as a whole.

When I was six yeas old I feel down a three story stairwell (not down the stairs, but it was a cylindrical staircase and I feel over the bannister to the floor beneath, about a 37 foot fall)) and landed at my fathers feet. He thought I was dead and that there was no way a child could survive that fall and there was blood everywhere. 

At the hospital I regained consciousness and in the end I needed 5 stitches and had a concussion. No broken bones or fractures etc. 

I also was working emergency one night and a 2 year old came in via ambulance. The toddler had fallen out of a second story window and landed on a concrete walkway below (the fall was about 16 feet from what the parents said). The child was badly bruised and had some minor cuts, but not a single broken bone.

Again, my point isn't in relation to concussions but the notion that many have that kids are so "fragile" when in reality that isn't the case, especially in comparison to adults.


February 3rd, 2013 at 5:10 PM ^

1.  Kids in elementary and middle schools usually can't generate enough force to give each other concussions.

2.  There was no mandatory weightlifting in the NFL until Vince Lombardi won championships with it, and debunked the prevailing "wisdom" that weightlifting would make a player "slow" and "musclebound."

3.  Maybe the fact that helmets were "less advanced" was a good thing,  It didn't provide the illusion of impunity and couldn't be used as a weapon.


February 3rd, 2013 at 8:49 PM ^

the PR battle has already started and the negative press will only get worse.

The same with global Warming; most scientists agree there is no evidence that global warming exists.  Even if it does exist; there is no evidence that is it cause by man.  However, if you asked the average man on the street, global warming is real even though Al Gore lied.


February 3rd, 2013 at 11:17 PM ^

the confusion.  Drinking and typing from a mobile is not advised.  My point is that the truth does not matter in high profile situations.  Once the tide starts to turn and public opinion gets behind a theory (even if proved wrong later), people jump on the bandwagon and that "truth" becomes the new normal.

In 10 years Teo will be known for the guy who had a fake internet girlfriend.  No one will care if he was a victim of a hoax.


February 4th, 2013 at 9:57 AM ^

I understand that I'm getting into the verboten area of politics here, but I'm not letting your statement stand, for this reason: it's unadulterated bullshit with no basis whatsoever in fact.

Of the 13,950 peer-reviewed scientific papers published between 1991 and 2012 on "global warming" or "global climate change," exactly 24 rejected global warming:…

A comprehensive list of the large number of national and international scientific organizations, institutions, and societies that explicitly accept the reality of global warming and climate change is here:

Ron Utah

February 3rd, 2013 at 11:23 PM ^

We can all agree to leave bickering about the WSJ and NYT on the FNC and MSNBC message boards from now on.

The article is just another piece of evidence in what is sure to be a long and heated debate. I, for one, would let my kids play football or any other mainstream sport--including rugby, which is far more dangerous--knowing the risks. I think we are missing the point of life if we keep ourselves from doing anything risky. Climbing, skydiving, snowmobiling, etc are all more dangerous than football, and I don't think they should be off limits either. I understand and support those who don't want their kids to play football, just don't take it away from the rest of us.


February 4th, 2013 at 8:30 AM ^

is subject to change dramatically with new testing.  Until now CTE dx was only possible through post mortum examination and staining.  

This is about ti change dramatically.


CTE found in living ex-NFL players.

Brain scans performed on five former NFL players revealed images of the protein that causes football-related brain damage -- the first time researchers have identified signs of the crippling disease in living players.

Researchers who conducted the pilot study at UCLA described the findings as a significant step toward being able to diagnose the disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in living patients.

"I've been saying that identifying CTE in a living person is the holy grail for this disease and for us to be able make advances in treatment," said Dr. Julian Bailes, co-director of NorthShore Neurological Institute in Evanston, Ill., and one of the study's co-authors. "It's not definitive, and there's a lot we still need to discover to help these people, but it's very compelling. It's a new discovery."