Why Kids Under 14 Should Not Play Tackle Football

The more we learn about the dangers to children, the more it makes sense to wait

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Tom Brady is the gifted quarterback of the New England Patriots, widely regarded (even by Jets’ fans) as one of the best ever at his position. But when he was a kid in the late 1980s and early ’90s, his father Tom Sr. and his mother Galynn did not allow him to play organized tackle football. For that, Tom had to wait until his freshman year at Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo, Calif. “The first time I ever saw Tommy seriously throw a football, he was 14 years of age,” his dad told me.

(MORE: Kids’ Concussion Symptoms May Persist for a Year)

Tom Sr. believed that football was too dangerous. “As a parent, I didn’t want my 7- or 8-year-old kid walking off the field with a broken arm or leg,” the elder Brady said. (Concussions were just an afterthought at the time.)

Today’s parents of peewee players would do well to embrace Tom Brady Sr.’s attitude. Last month, in one single Pop Warner football game, five preadolescent players on a team from Tantasqua, Mass., suffered serious head injuries. The boys were all around the age of 10 and none were over the predetermined weight limit of 120 lb. In spite of the 52-point lead the opposing team had on Tantasqua, neither coach called for the contest to end. (Those coaches have since been suspended.)

This year, 3 million kids from the ages of 6 to 14 are playing organized youth tackle football, according to USA Football. Even some 5-year-olds are in helmets playing in the Tiny Mite division of Pop Warner (which insists that its gladiators weigh at least 35 lb.).

(MORE: Why the NFL Needs a Concussion Ref)

In my new book, Concussions and Our Kids, which I co-authored with Dr. Robert Cantu, a clinical professor of neurosurgery at the Boston University School of Medicine, we make the case for delaying organized tackle football until kids are 14 years old. The better game for children is flag football — in which kids grab flags rather than each other to stop the ball carrier. Kids can develop tackle-football skills during these early years by practicing those skills on tackling dummies.

(MORE: The Problem with Football: How to Make It Safer)

Admittedly, the cutoff age of 14 is somewhat arbitrary. (That’s usually the case with any mandatory minimum or maximum, i.e. “10 items or less.”) However, there are important reasons to hold off until then, including:

  • Kids are not miniature adults. By age 4, the heads of kids are 90% of adult size. However, their necks are much weaker than an adult’s neck. The combination creates a danger. When a child takes a hard blow from falling or being struck in the helmet, it is more difficult to keep the head steady. The result is greater force to the brain from being jerked inside the skull.
  • Kids don’t understand the risks. This is as much an ethical as a medical consideration. A teenager entering high school can make a judgment about the ups and downs of playing tackle football. He has the ability to think through the consequences himself, not as an adult would but at least with an understanding of risk and reward. The same isn’t true of a 6-year-old.
  • Much is not known about the long-term effects of repetitive head trauma, especially among young children. How will these kids be affected when they’re 70, or even 50?

At Emerson Hospital in Concord, Mass., Cantu treats hundreds of patients a year for concussion symptoms. Cantu is also co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University, which has examined the brains of many deceased professional football players who were found to have the degenerative disease as a result of years of accumulated head trauma. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has also been detected in the brains of a college football player and a high school football player. There aren’t any known cases in younger athletes (CTE can only be diagnosed after death), but it is scary to think that there may be eighth-graders out there who have the disease in such an early stage.

Sure football is an exciting game. But the more the medical community learns about the risks, the more Tom Brady Sr. seemed to have asked the right question: What’s the rush?

MORE: Kids and Concussions

19 comments
BanditCoach
BanditCoach

I have coached youth football for the past 9 years and football in general for over 15. I have had two concussions ever. they happened to my players in the two seasons ago..It was not from poor teaching or bad technique. It was from improper equipment. Proper equipment and fit is the first step to preventing injuries of all kinds in football.  Also players playing with in their own age bracket will cut down on injuries. Education is always the key. How I was coached as a kid does not work in this era, kids are bigger and faster. The equipment needs to catch up to the size and speed of the players this may or may not prevent injuries but it would be a good place to start. Parents must be involved , coaches at football fields at any level are not babysitters, football is dangerous and parents need to be informed and educated. Poor teaching, bad coaching and mis-fitted equipment can be controlled by the parents. These are your kids get educated and protect them. I coached this year 12-14 year olds and had 3 parents at my practice tops for the whole year. Lucky for them I get it!!!!

ErikMiller
ErikMiller

More concussions are suffered by children under the age of 14 riding bicycles and yet no one has encouraged parents to keep their child off a bike until they are at least 14.  A big part of the problem with football isn't the game or the age of the players, it is the ignorance of many coaches that encourage full contact drills at every practice, don't teach proper tackling (not the old way of wrapping with a "helmet on the ball") and haven't been properly trained as a youth coach.  You can quote statistics all day long; like: percentage wise soccer has a much higher rate of concussion player to player than football (number of players vs number of concussions suffered annually) but no matter what sport you prefer, or even if you have something against youth athletics, it comes back to parents and coaches setting aside their ignorance, getting educated and working together to make EVERY sport safer for young people.

William
William

Thankfully American football or gridiron is not played in Australia to any extent. Australian rules football (AFL) is  the premier code along with rugby league, rugby union and soccer. The first three are very tough physical games..  Boys play from the age of five in modified forms of the game. Head injuries and broken bones are rare at the youth level. The use of helmets in any form of the football codes is banned because they are in themselves a dangerous weapon. In the rugby codes some players wear a soft leather head covering to protect the ears in scrums but this is rare as they tend to create too much heat. In the AFL professional players run upwards of 12 - 16 kilometres a game. Those who have seen the game on cable would know just how physically demanding the game is. If players wore helmets the injury rates would be astronomical. Without helmets players don't use their heads as battering rams. You will find if you got rid of helmets and introduced rules protecting the head as apply in Australian football for example, concussions and other impact injuries caused by the helmet would fall away dramatically as would the incidence of post concussion trauma  caused by the constant head impacts which is set to be a mine field for American football based on reports we receive in Australia. 

davecisar
davecisar

Ive coached youth football for ovr 20 years and have yet to have a single player get an concussion. Video games and ballet arent the best tools to help develop children into young men. http://winningyouthfootball.com

bobpaul
bobpaul

Kids need to have fun and should play sports not just sitting around getting fat.

RonVargo1
RonVargo1

Of course, when I was 10, the weight limit was also 80 pounds.

RonVargo1
RonVargo1

I played football from age 9 to 18. Somehow, didn't get any injury until I was 17. But I coached seven-year-olds and saw two sustain concussions. I never thought kids that young should be playing football--and they couldn't in the early-90s when I was a kid (you had to be nine). If I had a boy, I would not allow him to play until the varying age that his body developed and mind seemed to grasb the possibilities.

pendragon05
pendragon05

Kids under 14 should be growing brain cells, not wasting time on sports.

ErikMiller
ErikMiller

One other comment to the author's point about flag football being an alternative: "Kids can develop tackle-football skills during these early years by practicing those skills on tackling dummies."  Again, I reiterate, without proper training the coaches are teaching poor technique and thus I would prefer my child play tackle football with the proper instruction and a helmet rather than running into a tackling dummy and getting concussed because the coach didn't understand and teach the proper technique.

BanditCoach
BanditCoach

@William  You are comparing apples to oranges. Two totally different games in context. I have watched AFL and played rugby. Football can be violent, but I got hurt more in general playing rugby.

SHildebrand88
SHildebrand88

@davecisar The study on CTE shows that even without a history of concussion, players are susceptible to this disease through repeated, sub-concussive blows to the head.

They have discovered young men (deceased college-aged players) whose brain resembles that of an Alzheimer's patient.

davecisar
davecisar

So children shouldnt be allowed to make decisions until they can make them for themselves?

Interesting, I thought parents had that role for the most part until the child starts entering adulthood.

Parent shows little JR not to touch the hot stove because it will burn him, not wait until the child is old enough to figure it out on their own. How about riding bikes or skateboarding- do you think biking or skateboarding is safer than football? Check out what the Mayo clinic says about that? So using your logic, the kids need to be wrapped in bubble wrap and shouldnt be able to ride a bike until he can make his own decision about it.

BanditCoach
BanditCoach

@ErikMiller Flag football teaches bad habits and creates injury in my opinion. All the flag players I ever coached couldn't make it in tackle. Scared of contact!!!

JimKach
JimKach

@SHildebrand88 @davecisar Having played high school and college football there is no other experience like it.  If you haven't played, you cannot understand.  My son is now playing semi pro football and the only head injury he ever received was from skate boarding.  However, he did witness his college soccer goalie suffer a fractured skull.  As a certified soccer coach and official I have seen a plethora of injuries from a so-called safe sport.

davecisar
davecisar

Please cite the study and show definitive cause and effect.

Interesting study done by the NFL players union- NFL players live FAR longer lives than the average population. The fallacy of NFL player dying young is not based in consistent fact.

Many studies show those involved in competitive team sports like football do much better academically and socially than those who dont.

SHildebrand88
SHildebrand88

@davecisar It takes a couple of seconds to search for these words in Google News. I'm not writing a term paper here; why would I have to do it for you? 

I didn't mention anything about the life expectancy of NFL players, or the academic performance of football players. You are free to believe whatever you want, as long as you can live with it.

I'm a young woman who does not have any children. I don't have to make the decision and certainly am not obligated to convince you or anyone else by showing 'definitive cause and effect.'