Letters from Maine

Football for the young


A few weeks ago I was at a Friday-night football game, but not to watch the game. I’ve been there and done that too many times when I used to be the team physician. I was there to listen to my granddaughter drumming in the pep band. And there was a lot of drumming because her high school’s team is having a hot year and outscoring opponents by three and four touchdowns every week.

David Peeters/iStockphoto

At half time, the field was swarmed by 45-50 early grade schoolers looking like bobblehead dolls in their oversize helmets and surprisingly professional-appearing miniature football outfits. Under the lights, on the local college’s turf field, they were in football heaven. The pep band got into it and there was more drumming as the few kids who had a clue what football was about were scampering over and around their teammates and opponents who were roughhousing with each other, rolling around on the turf having a grand time, blissfully unimpressed by such trivial concepts as the line of scrimmage or the difference between blocking and tackling or even offense and defense.

Despite all the alarming articles both lay and professional that you and I see, this was an evening on which no one seemed particularly concerned about sports-related concussions. This is class B football in Maine, not a state well known as an incubator of Division I college football players. While there were a few scrawny kids with some speed, no one in the high school game had enough size or momentum to generate the kinds of collisions one sees with frightening regularity on television.

Watching 4- and 5-year-olds in their football uniforms seemed to me to be a rather harmless exercise and certainly a more positive investment in their time on a Friday night than sitting on the couch with an electronic device clutched in their little hands. A recent report in JAMA Pediatrics suggests that my lack of concern has some validity (“Consensus statement on sports-related concussions in youth sports using a modified delphi approach.” JAMA Pediatr. 2019 Nov 11. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2019.4006). Eleven experts in sports-related injuries were surveyed with multiple rounds of questionnaires. Their anonymous responses were aggregated and shared with the group after each round until a consensus could be arrived on for each of seven broad questions about sports-related concussions. It is a paper worth reading and like most good literature surveys determined that in many situations more study needs to be done.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

Among the many findings that impressed me was the group’s failure to find an “association between repetitive head impact exposure in youth and long-term neurocognitive outcomes.” In addition, “there is little evidence that age at first exposure repetitive head impacts in sports is independently associated with neurodegenerative changes.” The experts also could find “no evidence that growth or development affect the risk of sports-related concussions.”

The problem with youth football is that it is the portal that can lead to college and professional football, in which large bodies are allowed to collide after accelerating at speeds we mortals only can achieve behind the wheel of our motor vehicles. Rules to minimize those collisions do exist, but lax enforcement has failed to prevent their cumulative damage.

Whether the culture of big-time football is going to change to a point at which a conscientious parent could encourage his or her child to play after adolescence remains to be seen. However, the evidence seems to suggest that allowing young children to bang themselves around imitating the big guys seems to be reasonably safe. At least as safe as what kids used to do to each other before we adults invented television and video games.

When my son was 3 or 4 years old, he played on a hockey team he thought was called the Toronto Make-Believes (Maple Leafs). Maybe we should be telling parents it’s safe for their children to play make-believe contact sports. The challenge comes after those kids reach puberty and want to start playing the real thing.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at [email protected].

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