As the end of football season is upon us, with bowl games for colleges and playoffs for the NFL, a week does not go by that we don’t hear about a player who has been diagnosed with a concussion. The debate surrounding football players and concussions will only get louder as the film Concussion debuted over the holiday weekend. The movie starring Will Smith will have broad appeal for kids and adults as it is a “sports thriller as well as a medical drama.”
Concussion is the story of a doctor, Bennet Omalu, and his discovery that concussions cause long term neurological consequences and his persistence in fighting the NFL. He forced the NFL to admit to the problem, and his groundbreaking research has led to ongoing changes in the treatment of concussions both on and off the field.
As a parent of three sons (full disclosure here), I must admit that our youngest son played football. We had somehow managed to “dodge the football bullet” until the third boy came along.
He was the most athletic (his brothers would tell you that is because they taught him to play “up” with them in any sport), and started playing football in elementary school. (We are from Texas where football is king). Fortunately, or unfortunately, he was good, as was his team, and they all went on to play through middle school, where they won the league championship, and then into high school.
He loved the sport, and begged us to keep letting him play. Despite numerous conversations and our dismay that he wanted to continue to play football, he did play. Of course we “bought him the best helmets” (not knowing then that studies would show that that is not enough), and we prayed every time he took the field that he would not get hurt.
He did get hurt.
During his senior year he suffered a shoulder injury and had major surgery. Doctors took a tendon from his knee to put into his shoulder, and he vowed never to play again. He also figured out “that he was not the best player on the team,” which does not mean you can’t get hurt.
But, with all of the new studies and good data on CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) related to head injuries and concussions, I called and asked him if he thought he had ever had a concussion. Certainly, we never noted anything, but again this was about 10 years ago. To my surprise, and in retrospect, he thinks he probably did “have a couple of concussive like events,” but he never told anyone — not his parents, coach or trainer — about his symptoms. He only missed the end of his senior year due to his shoulder injury, not a concussion. Thankfully, he seems to be OK, is currently getting his MBA and does not even play recreational football.
After reviewing all of the new data and the guidelines for return to play (RTP) and seeing the kids I have screened for concussions kept out of games, I am not sure what I would do today if our child wanted to play football. That is the biggest question that parents are now facing. Do you LET your child play football knowing about the risk of head injuries and the possibility of long-term injury to a still developing brain? An injury that may not be reversible?
The American Academy of Pediatrics has recently come out with a zero tolerance policy for head-first hits in football, and the Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness has written the policy on tackling in youth football (Pediatrics, Oct. 25, 2015), which includes seven recommendations to help make football safer. As Gregory Landry, M.D., one of the lead authors states, “Participants in football must decide whether the potential health risks of sustaining injuries are outweighed by the recreational benefits.”
So, who is to decide? The parent, the underage child or both? Good questions, but there are many different opinions on the answers.
(Dr. Sue Hubbard is an award-winning pediatrician, medical editor and media host. “The Kid’s Doctor” TV feature can be seen on more than 90 stations across the U.S. Submit questions at http://www.kidsdr.com. The Kid’s Doctor e-book, “Tattoos to Texting: Parenting Today’s Teen,” is now available from Amazon and other e-book vendors.)