Youth Football: Friend or Foe?



During the third quarter of Pike County (Zebulon, Georgia) High School’s football game on Sept. 28, junior linebacker Dylan Thomas seemed to suffer a leg injury. According to CNN, he left the game and was carried to the bench. However, the injury was far more severe than it had looked.

First responder Steve Fry said Dylan became incoherent and passed out. He fell off the bench and when he woke up, said “I can’t feel my body,” only to pass out again. Just two days later, the 16-year-old died of a head injury. The small county south of Atlanta was left in confusion and grief.

Football season is upon us, and this season may look a little different in all levels of the game. In the National Football League (NFL), a new helmet rule and concussion protocol are in place to help make the game safer for the players. In college football (NCAA), new rules are in place to help limit collisions and make kickoffs safer. In youth football, participation numbers are down from years past.

These changes come as a result of public backlash against the sport due to recent findings on concussions. The research from Dr. Bennet Omalu on the connection between Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and football has brought the dangers of the sport to the public eye. Omalu first published his discovery of CTE in a football player in 2002 while performing an autopsy on Hall of Fame Steelers Center Mike Webster. He found tangles of Tau protein, proteins that stabilize microtubules, consistent with CTE, found mainly in boxers.

Omalu’s research was even turned into a 2015 movie starring Will Smith, “Concussion.” Well over 100 current and former professional players have been said to have seen the movie in theaters, according to a Sony Pictures spokesman. However, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has expressed his displeasure with the movie and its message to the press in December of 2015.

Recent research, frequency in traumatic head injuries and early retirement in some NFL players (such as 24 year-old Joshua Perry, 23 year-old A.J. Tarpley and 26 year-old John Urschel) have led to a decrease in youth football numbers. According to the Chicago Tribune, in the Chicago area, one program run by the Park District from Highland Park shut down after seeing a drop in signups from a peak of 150 kids to only 11. In the same Chicago area, the Addison Cowboys youth program has dropped from having 12 teams to four.

Coaches and officials say the decline in participation could be due to other sports attracting kids such as baseball and soccer. However, the main reason is the growing concern for head injuries.

Omalu told an audience at the New York Press Club that allowing kids under 18 to play football “is the definition of child abuse.” The CTE research in NFL players has made some parents rethink their kids’ participation in football. Not only is youth football declining, but also high school football has lost participants. Since 2007, Illinois has gone from 51,000 high school players to 42,682 in 2016.

According to Prevacus, high school athletes sustain an estimated 300,000 concussions per year. The alarming number of reported concussions is not even close to the number of unreported cases. Dr. Susan Rogerson of Fayetteville Family Practice says 50 percent of cases go underreported.

“They will just think that it’s a bad headache or don’t want to report it because they will have to sit out,” Rogerson said.

Dr. Ragini Sharma of Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks in Fayetteville says she has seen instances where concussions are underreported and led to even more serious situations.

“A female basketball player struck her head hard and sat out for a few minutes then resumed playing,” Sharma said. “She later experienced a momentary loss of consciousness.”

Just a day after Dylan Thomas played his last game of football, Tennessee State linebacker Christion Abercrombie suffered a similar fate. Late in the second quarter of the Tigers road game versus Vanderbilt, Abercrombie trotted off the field to the sideline and collapsed. He was rushed to the hospital on a stretcher where he received an emergency head surgery. He was lying unconscious in a hospital bed, fighting for his life for about a month. As of Oct. 16, he was released to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta.

Adding to the fear of concussions is the effect seen in former players. Several well-known former players like Chargers linebacker Junior Seau and Bears safety Dave Duerson were diagnosed with CTE and ended up taking their own lives. Even more former players complain of losing their train of thought and experiencing extreme headaches.

With the concern of traumatic head injuries rising, the NFL wants to institute new rules to help eliminate hard hits, especially helmet-to-helmet. After 2017 investigations into the Seattle Seahawks and Houston Texans organizations, the NFL found both teams mishandled the treatment of head injuries to quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Tom Savage.

The league has now added rules that require any player, coach or referee to take a player suspected to be injured to a medical team member for evaluation immediately. For the 2018 season, another new rule regarding helmet-to-helmet hits was implemented. Violation of the rule penalizes the team 15 yards or ejects the player in question.

According to the NFL’s fact sheet, when a player lowers his head to initiate contact with the helmet on an opponent, the player will be ejected. The contact cannot be made to any part of the defenseless players’ body including the head, neck, torso or lower body.   

“I don’t think it is safe to play football,” Sharma said. “It’s a sport that is designed to tackle; there is no way they can make it safer. I would never allow my kids to play.”

Rogerson echoed Sharma’s concern. “I would not let my kids play simply based on the lack of training,” Rogerson said. “The kids and coaches need to be better trained in tackling skills and how to use the equipment properly. Your shoulder pads are used to protect your shoulders, but you can also use them to hit. So if the players know how to use their body and equipment properly I think it can be safer.”

“There is room for improvement,” Rogerson said on the direction of football safety. “I think with the proper training and coaching it can be ok to play football in the future.”

Infographic by Chloe Kilpatrick