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Football programs at public schools should end, say two U of M professors

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently issued new recommendations for making football safer for children and teens: Officials and coaches should have “zero tolerance” for illegal head-on hits, skilled athletic trainers should be on the sidelines during every game, and nontackling leagues should be expanded.

“Parents and players will need to decide whether the health risks associated with tackling are outweighed by the recreational benefits of the game,” one of the authors of the new recommendations said in a released statement. “The AAP encourages athletes to continue playing organized sports, while supporting coaches and officials in their work to reduce these injuries.”

Two University of Minnesota physicians — Dr. Steven Miles, a professor of medicine and bioethics, and Dr. Shailendra Prasad, an associate professor of family medicine and community health — believe the AAP does not go far enough.

In a commentary that will appear in the January issue of the American Journal of Bioethics (but is already posted online), they say the AAP and other health professionals should be calling for an end to tackle football — at least, in publicly funded schools.

Here’s why:

We agree with the AAP that the rare deaths (seven through October 2015) or catastrophic neck injuries do not, of themselves, tip the balance against school football. Tragedies occur in other sports and activities that young people pursue. Youth football also brings high risks of sprains, strains, ligamentous tears and fractures but these risks are roughly comparable to other sports.

Public schools should end their football programs because of the high prevalence of concussions. Five to twenty percent of students experience at least one concussion in a season of play. Nine to twelve year old players experience an average of 240 head impacts per season; high school players average 650 head impacts per season. An initial football concussion increases the risk of a subsequent concussion three or four fold not simply for the balance of that season but for the following season as well. Catastrophic brain injuries, though rare, are far more common in high school and college players who have experienced a previous non-catastrophic concussion.

The brains of children are more susceptible to long-term damage from concussion than adults. Although the frequency of concussion in football is about the same as in hockey, fifty times as many students play football than hockey; football causes far more brain injuries. The brain is an irreplaceable organ, the health of which is foundational for the ability to learn, socialize and for fully realizing life’s physical and vocational opportunities.

In the short term, football-related concussions — even mild or moderate ones — can lead to “impaired school academic performance, memory disturbances, headaches and absenteeism,” Miles and Prasad write. 

But, as the two physicians also point out, concussions pose serious long-term risks for young people, too. The cognitive problems can become permanent, particularly if the trauma to the head is repeated.

Informed consent and dual loyalties

In its recommendations, the AAP suggests that parents be given an informed consent form to sign before their child plays football, so that all the risks associated with the game are known to them.

Dr. Steven Miles
Dr. Steven Miles

But, as Miles and Prasad note, “existing consent forms are deeply flawed. They do not quantify risk or they minimize it with misleadingly contextualization (e.g., “There is a degree of risk in all daily activities.) The consent forms do not rebut the ungrounded hope of 26% of parents, especially those with economic and educational disadvantages, that their child will turn school participation in to a professional athletic career. Even when parents have been educated by the team and signed consent, many student players do not understand the symptoms or potential consequences of concussion.

School football programs are also rife with dual loyalties, which, as the two physicians explain,

can affect a team physician or coach’s assessment and counseling of an aspiring football player. Risks may be minimized as students sign up to play. The potential for training, equipment, rules and refereeing to reduce concussions may be overstated. Injured players may be prematurely permitted or encouraged to ‘choose’ to return to play. Such issues affect the authenticity of choices of students who are also influenced by appeals to ‘school spirit,’ the mirage of a pro career, or peer pressure especially in smaller communities that have few candidates to fill a team roster.

Dual loyalty conflicts also work at an institutional level. School football is big business and a large part of popular culture. It is fiercely protected as is evident in the words of a judge who dismisses an injured player’s lawsuit for fear it might “harm” the sport.”

The authors of the AAP’s new recommendations, say Miles and Prasad, also appear to fear “harming” the sport:

The report inexplicably omits discussing the effects of concussion on academic performance (the reason for going to school). It argues for respecting the ‘choice’ to play without noting how that schools, parents, coaches or the unrealistic aspirations for a pro career may pressure ‘choice’. It fails to offer an evidence-based template for informed consent, essentially preserving the current model of consent as a liability waiver. The report is optimistically speculative as when it suggests that neck strengthening might decrease the catastrophic neck injuries or cautions that that raising the age at which tackling is allowed might increase injuries. Throughout, the report upholds the tradition of youth tackle football against “fundamental change” even though scientific evidence is clearly trending in the opposite direction.

Time to take a stand

Dr. Shailendra Prasad
Dr. Shailendra Prasad

Miles and Prasad conclude their commentary by proposing that all health professionals take a stand against football in public schools:

By this option, health professionals would oppose public support for bonds to build stadiums or athletic facilities for junior or senior high school football. They would oppose public school programs granting academic credit for playing football or leave of absences for practice or games. Such a proposal would not ban youth football. Private play and private leagues, like the Pop Warner program, would continue. Young people choosing such programs would play purely for the game and not be lured by ‘school spirit.’ Health professionals would continue to promote life long exercise programs and school physical education programs. However, under this proposal, the medical community could help students, schools and society leave a sport on which the sun is setting.

You can read the commentary in full on the American Journal of Bioethics’ bioethics.net website. You can read the AAP’s new recommendations in the November issue of Pediatrics.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/02/2015 - 12:04 pm.

    Not that it matters

    …but I absolutely agree with the medical, ethical, educational and economic rationales for doing away with publicly-funded football in the K-12 environment. I’d also like to see publicly-funded interscholastic hockey, lacrosse and other contact sports eliminated for both boys and girls. The injuries are often permanent, the veneer of “sportsmanship” is thinner than a coat of paint, the damage (both physiological and in terms of time spent) to education is often similarly permanent, and in many school districts, interscholastic sports take up 10% and more of a district’s annual budget in an era when every public school district in the country is scrambling for money to maintain aging buildings and staff classrooms with qualified people.

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/02/2015 - 03:43 pm.

    Both sides

    It would have been nice to get a comment from state high schools or the U of M athletic department. President Kaler is on record as supporting Gopher athletics because he is frequently asked questions about it as he goes around the state. Perhaps given the chance, the athletic department might come up with something a little more substantive.

  3. Submitted by charles thompson on 11/02/2015 - 05:07 pm.

    kind of like

    I wish the doctors god speed. They might as well be taking the defense budget.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/02/2015 - 06:12 pm.

    I played high school football

    at an “inner city” high school (read “black”)

    High school football provides one of the few opportunities for poor kids and kids of color to earn college scholarships and perhaps, one day, be able to move out of the ghetto because they have a college degree and the type of middle class job that goes with it.

    I guess I can understand why some people would never, ever think of that benefit. Take a look at the University of Minnesota football roster and imagine whether or not most of those kids would be in college today were it not for high school football.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/02/2015 - 09:48 pm.

    The chances are similar

    A high school football player has about the same chance of getting a football scholarship, and staying around the U long enough to get a degree (that 2nd point is the important one), as I do of winning the lottery. Nowhere in any reputable university’s mission statement does the phrase “Produce semi-professional football players” appear.

    More to the point, there’s not much reason for the public to pay for kids – poor or not, black or not – to get concussions and other injuries with serious long-term effects on their physical and cognitive development. Aside from the specific physical skills needed to play a particular position on the field, every single lesson that coaches and sports boosters like to cite as justification for the expense and trauma incurred by participation in widespread interscholastic contact sports can be learned off the field in another, less health-threatening, non-athletic context. Teamwork, perseverance, persistence, “sportsmanship,” and numerous other traits typically associated with sports, including football, are neither an automatic part of organized sport nor do they require an athletic context to be learned.

    If parents want to put the health of their children at risk, they should be able to do so – in a context that’s not funded by the public. In many instances, we already have a way to do this that has nothing to do with public schools, but which allows kids to play a sport. That’s why there are “club” teams and leagues in every state. Kids who want to play can play, if their parents can afford it. If their parents can’t afford it, a philanthropic local businessman or woman will often pick up the tab for equipment and other expenses. This relieves the parents and students who represent the other 90% of high school student bodies of the expense – intellectual and monetary – of subsidizing the sporting activity of the 10% who have the physical talent and desire to play the sport.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/03/2015 - 08:41 am.

      Yeah, the chances of a pro career are minuscule

      You’d improve disadvantaged students “chances” a lot more if those sports budgets were directed towards narrowing achievement gaps.

      I’ve always thought it’s weird that a generation of parents who are absolutely obsessed with their children’s safety push all their kids into sports programs where they are the most likely to suffer serious injury. The won’t let their teen age kids trick or treat by themselves but they push then out into game where they’ll suffer head and neck injuries. Go figure.

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/03/2015 - 08:52 am.

    Handy little book

    There’s a handy little book that that was written by a couple sociologists back in the 90s: “Lessons of the Locker Room: The Myth of School Sport”

    The book looks at the real statistical chances of becoming a pro athlete of some kind as well as a number of other myths associated with school sports (such as character building). Although the book was written in the 90s the analysis is still valid, the numbers and nature of the programs haven’t changed. It’s only 243 pages and its something almost everyone should read.


  7. Submitted by Shar Fortunak on 11/04/2015 - 01:46 pm.

    HS & university football

    Yes, two issues here–
    1) HS & university football programs should be eliminated or greatly scaled back. The kids need more sleep, time to read and day dream. There is a serious health issue about head injuries.

    2) Environmental. We all need clean air; cut back on unnecessary vehicle mileage.

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