University doctors call for end of high school football over concussion issues

Recent research has focused on the dangers of brain injuries in the sport.

Hannah Schacherl

Football lays claim to fall weekends for many Americans, but doctors continue to question whether the sport’s impact on young bodies and minds is worth it.
 
University of Minnesota professors Dr. Steven Miles and Dr. Shailey Prasad will publish their research, which concentrated on a number of studies on concussions in football from across the country, in January in an American Journal of Bioethics editorial. It will call for an end to school-sponsored football programs due to the prevalence of concussions in the sport. 
 
“The concern from youth football is head injuries, even beyond concussions, with the primary concern being minor traumatic brain injuries,” Prasad said. 
 
On average, kids aged 9 to 12 experience 240 head impacts per season, and high school athletes can average 650. Linemen undergo up to 2,000 concussions per season, Prasad said. 
 
“These are not easily detectable, so they build up to create major damage that involves issues with memory, mood disorders and other cognitive functions,” Prasad said. 
 
In October, the American Academy of Pediatrics  recommended using neck-strengthening exercises and safer tackling techniques, among other protective measures, to prevent concussions.
 
The Minnesota State High School League is aware of the danger of concussion on the football field, said Kevin Merkle, associate director of football for the organization. 
 
“[The MSHSL] has changed policy, such as the number of practices and contact practices, as well as constantly working with schools to lower the number of sustained concussions,” Merkle said.
 
The American Academy of Pediatrics study proposed that less time spent practicing proper tackling increases the severity of impacts during games and risk of concussions. 
 
Prasad said that it is possible to change the rules to avoid contact, but the end result would be a completely different game.
 
“Flag football is an alternative, but it’s essentially a different sport,” Prasad said.
 
Despite the injury risks, parents aren’t calling to take football out of schools, Merkle said. 
 
Many parents see high school football as safer than non-academic football leagues because of school and MSHSL regulation, Merkle said.
 
“It’s something we’re staying on top of and look for improvements in safety. We’re trying to keep perspectives between the game and safety,” Merkle said.
 
Rich Frieder, executive director at LearningRx, a clinic that trains people with cognitive injuries and disabilities, said he sees athletes seeking brain training from his organization after a concussion from a variety of sports — not just football players.
 
“It’s highly unrealistic to completely take football away or prevent concussions completely,” he said.
 
Prasad said he doesn’t think his editorial will enact specific changes but hopes it will add to the discussion among physicians over the safety of youth football.
 
“From an ethical viewpoint, we have to ask if athletes and their parents really understand these risks and add physicians more to the conversation about concussions and minor traumatic brain injuries,” he said.