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Kallas: Should You Let Your Child Play Tackle Football?

Parents, The Ball Is In Your Court...
Hall of Famer Mike Webster died in 2002. (Photo by Mike Powell/Getty Images)

Hall of Famer Mike Webster died in 2002. (Photo by Mike Powell/Getty Images)

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Steve Kallas will be a guest on “The Sports Edge” with Rick Wolff on Sunday morning to discuss the issue of kids playing tackle football and concussions. “The Sports Edge” airs on WFAN from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. 

By Steve Kallas
» More Columns

The debate has been swirling now for a number of years. With the recent publication of the book, “League of Denial,” and, more importantly — for our purposes — the “FRONTLINE” documentary of the same name, a more intelligent discussion can be had on the subject.

While the book summarizes all that has happened in the last few decades, the “FRONTLINE” piece brings it more to life, with more of a focus on young people playing football.

WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?

Well, virtually everybody knows the problem by now. With the discovery (in 2002) of Dr. Bennet Omalu that Pittsburgh Steeler Hall of Fame center Mike Webster had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a disease of the brain that can only be discovered at death, the door was opened to a whole new area of research. The pounding that Webster had taken over the years in the trenches for the Steelers had eventually led to a great decline in his mental faculties and contributed to his death at the age of 50.

While alive, Webster was examined by multiple doctors, including at least one NFL handpicked neurologist, as he eventually battled for an NFL disability claim. These doctors, including the NFL doctor, concluded that Webster suffered irreparable brain damage from the repeated blows to the head that he took during his storied playing career. He was compared by some doctors with boxers who had been diagnosed in the past with dementia pugilistica or, as it was known as far back as the 1920s, “punch-drunk” syndrome. Boxers would be the first athletes to be diagnosed with CTE.

Unfortunately, and this is beyond the scope of this article, the NFL, in effect, went out of its way to minimize, or even refute, the science behind the discoveries in Webster’s brain and those of many other former NFL players. It got so bad that Representative Linda Sanchez of California, during Congressional hearings into the concussion/CTE issue in 2009, analogized the action of the NFL to that of the tobacco companies a generation ago. (You know, cigarettes don’t cause lung cancer,)

WHAT’S A PARENT TO DO?

The parents of a young child (six, eight, 10, 12 year olds) are really the ones who have to make this decision until they feel that their child can understand and contribute to the discussion. While this writer would never think to tell a parent what to do — he has a son and daughter of his own) — the following is meant to lay the groundwork for an informed decision that only a parent or guardian can make for a child.

IS THERE A CONNECTION BETWEEN THE POUNDING ONE’S HEAD TAKES IN FOOTBALL AND BRAIN INJURY?

While the answer seems to be yes, and to some neuropathologists, like Dr. Ann McKee, the answer is clear, some critics say various things, They say you have to consider “other things,” like steroid use or alcohol abuse or why some players get it and others don’t, etc.

The problem with the questions is, can a parent wait to find out if the Dr. McKees of the world, despite some overwhelming evidence that she is right, is really wrong?

You’ll have to draw your own conclusions.

Dr. McKee, who has looked at thousands of brains throughout her career, has examined the brains of 46 NFL players who died — some by suicide, some who were mentally and cognitively impaired at the time of their death and some whose brains were donated by concerned families.

Of the 46 brains that she has looked at, 45 had signs of CTE.

Obviously, a scary percentage.

OWEN THOMAS AND ERIC PELLY ARE TWO NAMES YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT

Many are familiar with famous NFL names like Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, two former NFL stars who committed suicide by shooting themselves in the chest. Duerson left a note specifically asking his family to have his brain examined. Seau did not leave a note, but many believe that he did not shoot himself in the head in order to have his brain studied as well.

Both men were diagnosed with CTE.

But who was Owen Thomas? Thomas was a hard-hitting lineman who played his college football at the University of Pennsylvania. He had played football since he was nine years old and had never been diagnosed with a concussion.

When he committed suicide by hanging at the age of 21 in 2010, Dr. McKee examined his brain, never expecting to find what she found: an advanced case of CTE. In Dr. McKee’s words, “that changes the game for me.” Now having to consider “sub-concussive” hits — that is, hits that don’t cause a concussion that happen all the time in any football game — as a possible cause of CTE, McKee said on “FRONTLINE”:

“Those sub-concussive hits, those hits that don’t even rise to the
level of what we call a concussion or symptoms, just playing the
game can be dangerous.”

Who was Eric Pelly? Pelly was an 18-year-old senior in high school, a straight-A student who played multiple sports. Pelly loved ice hockey and football and played those two sports as well as rugby.

10 days after suffering his fourth concussion, on October 10, 2006, Pelly died. When Dr. McKee looked at his brain, she was petrified, as she too had an 18-year old. Dr. McKee found signs of CTE in Pelly’s brain. She said, clearly upset on “FRONTLINE” as she was recounting her examination:

“You know that, that brain (of an 18-year old) is supposed to be
pristine. The fact that it (CTE) was there and he was only playing
high0school level sports, I mean, I think that’s a cause for concern.”

These are the two cases that parents should at least think about when making decisions about their young child.

BUT WHAT ABOUT CAUSE AND EFFECT, SMALL SAMPLE NUMBERS, ETC.

These are all very valid points and many scientists warn that there should be patience and more studies and more knowledge and information before drawing rock-solid conclusions.

But here’s the problem: If you have a young child and have to make that decision NOW or NEXT SEASON, can you really afford to wait? Can you really expect the NFL, with all of their new initiatives, to help you and your child?

Shouldn’t you err on the side of caution?

What happens if you decide that you’re going to let your young child play tackle football at (you fill in the age). And then two or four or six years from now, it becomes conclusive that all this pounding causes CTE in a certain percentage of players (and you can fill in that percentage: 10, 20, 50, five).

Won’t you be the one who would never forgive yourself for risking your child’s health and mental well-being?

WHAT DO DR. ROBERT CANTU AND HALL OF FAMER HARRY CARSON SAY?

Dr. Robert Cantu, one of the leading neurosurgeons and concussion researchers on the planet, strongly believes that no child under the age of 14 should play tackle football. On “FRONTLINE”, Dr. Cantu said:

“With what we know about the youth brain compared with the
adult brain, that it’s easily more disrupted than the adult brain,
the youth brain is lighter in weight so it has less inertia to put it
in motion.

“So you cap a youth head (hitting himself on the side of the head)
whose brain moves much quicker than an adult brain, it’s (the adult
brain) is heavier and therefore has more inertia. So I think we
should be treating youths differently.”

Harry Carson is an intelligent Hall of Fame linebacker who has studied the issue of concussions and mental issues for the last two decades. On “FRONTLINE”, Carson said:

“From a physical-risk standpoint, you know what you are doing
when you sign your kid up; that he can hurt his knee, OK. But
what you should know now is, your child could develop a brain
injury as a result of playing football.

“It’s not just on the pro level, it’s on every level of football. The
question is, do you want it to be your child?”

WHAT ABOUT OTHER SPORTS?

While the problem, according to high-school studies, is most prevalent in football, there are other sports where concussions and brain trauma are a problem. In order, after football, the most dangerous sports in terms of high-school concussions are boy’s ice hockey, boy’s lacrosse, girl’s lacrosse, girl’s soccer, girl’s field hockey and boy’s wrestling.

So, obviously, in 2013, this conversation is not limited solely to football.

DR. MCKEE GETS THE FINAL WORD

Dr. McKee, an avid Packers fan who comes from a football family, clearly is scared by what the future holds. She did say, “I don’t feel that I am in a position to make a proclamation for everyone else” when asked, if she did have children, if she would let them play football. When she said no, and was asked why, she said:

“Because the way football’s being played currently, that I’ve seen,
it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous and it could impact their long-term
mental health. You only get one brain. The thing you want your
kids to do, most of all, is succeed in life and be everything they can
be. And if there’s anything that may infringe that, that may limit that,
I don’t want my kids doing it.”

Parents, the ball is in your court.

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