Football has been under scrutiny in the United States ever since Dr. Bennet Omalu found evidence of a degenerative brain disease called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in former Pittsburgh Steeler lineman and fan favorite, Mike Webster, in 2002.
Not surprisingly, high school football participation has subsequently fallen from 1.14 million to 1.07 million participants since 2008, according to a study by the Aspen Institute. States such as New Jersey, California and Maryland have even seen programs disbanded as parents and players begin to understand the long-term effects repetitive head trauma can cause.
The drop in participation can also be directly correlated to advancements in CTE research.
Participation in football dropped in 40 states in spring 2018 after a particularly unsettling study was released by Boston University in July 2017. After examining 202 brains from deceased individuals who participated in football at different levels (former professional, collegiate and high school participants), researchers identified 177 as showing degenerative brain damage, including 99 percent of former NFL players.
“All of our studies are pointing toward sub-concussive impacts causing a change in the brain,” said University of Texas Southwestern Professor of Radiology Elizabeth Davenport in an Aspen Institute report. “Everything that we've seen has shown that just a normal football season will cause changes in the brain. And then we also see that if you have a concussion prior to the season, your brain changes differently. So it points toward a concussion never kind of ending.”
Many high school athletes, girls and boys, have turned to the less threatening version of the game, flag football.
While high school tackle football participation has been steadily dropping, flag football participation in the United States has increased 115 percent to 12,150 nationally since 2008-09, according to the National Federation of High School Associations.
The Aspen Institute, in its Sports and Society program, has recommended that due to the health concerns associated with starting tackle football at a young age flag football become the universal game played before the participant reaches high school.
New Orleans Saints quarterback and all-time NFL leading passer, Drew Brees, agrees with the recommendation and with steering players away from tackle football at the younger ages.
“I would not let my kids play tackle football right now,” Brees said. “I don’t think that is necessary, and I don’t think it’s as fun at this level, and I just think there is too much risk associated with putting pads on right now at this age.”
According to a Pediatric Neurology study published in 2018, kids younger than the age of 10 who reported having a concussion were twice as likely to suffer another than those who reported their first concussion from age 10 to 18.
More data comes from a 2013 study published by Virginia Tech and Wake Forest University that determined 7- and 8-year-olds playing tackle football received an average of 80 hits to the head per season while 9- to 12-year-olds received up to 240 hits. Impacts even at this age were measured at 80g of force or greater, equivalent to that of a serious car crash.
“I’m somewhat incredulous that we even discuss the reasonability of hitting a 5-year-old in the head hundreds of times,” said former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland, who stepped away from the NFL after one season due to brain trauma concerns. “It baffles me inside. I think you can wait to play.”
Brees understands the public health problem that football faces and knows the future of football starts at the flag level.
In 2017, he started Brees’ Football ‘N’ America, a Louisiana-based flag football league for boys and girls from kindergarten through the 10th grade. Now, there are leagues in California, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.
For many families, parents and even former players, flag football leagues such as Brees’ are the only option. Allowing their children to play tackle football just isn’t worth the risk.
“There hasn’t been a study tracing the impact of concussive impact with brain injuries all the way to adulthood,” said former University of Maryland football player Madieu Williams. “That doesn’t mean potential damage is not there. If we can limit exposure of our youth at a young age, given that they have very weak neck muscles and more importantly to protect the brain from any type of injury, it’s very important to do so.”
There are also other added benefits to delaying the physical aspect of football until high school. Rather than having children work on toughness and hitting drills at a young age, flag football would bring a new wave of safety-conscious parents/coaches who focus on proper technique.
Players would enter high school with a great understanding of proper technique, instead of compiling bad habits with the added physicality of the high school level.
“I think a lot of the youngsters need to learn how to tackle… the basis is still blocking and tackling,” said Tom Green, the head coach of Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Maryland. “So I think 10 is too young. But one or two years before high school to teach them how to tackle and how to block with equipment, I think that's important.”
Whether the Aspen Institute’s report recommendation to mandate only flag football before high school will solve all of the problems surrounding football’s popularity remains to be seen. NFL ratings have been declining steadily for a couple of years, and reasons stem from rule discrepancies to protests during the national anthem.
However, while numbers in participation and popularity all across football are down, flag football has been steadily growing. In the 6- to 12-year-old age group, participation has gone up by 38.9 percent over the past three years, more than any other team sport.
“I think that this has the opportunity to really save the game of football, honestly.” Brees said.
Ross Andrews is a senior journalism student at Arizona State University.