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NFL-Affiliated Doctor Says Football Is Safer Than Riding A Bike

03/18/2015 02:16 pm ET | Updated Mar 19, 2015

NFL-affiliated doctor and Clinical Professor of Neurological Surgery Joseph Maroon said during an interview on the NFL Network Tuesday that all this yelling and screaming about the dangers of football -- and in particular, youth football -- has gone too far. He even deemed the sport safer than riding a bike.

Maroon, who has at least two connections to the NFL -- one as a consultant to the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee, and another as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ team neurosurgeon -- labeled concerns about the degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) “over-exaggerated.” Parents, he said, shouldn’t stop their football-loving kids from getting on the field.

From the interview:

There are more injuries to kids from falling off bikes, scooters, falling in playgrounds than there are in youth football. Again, it’s never been safer. Can we improve? Yes, we have to do better all the time to make it safer, but I think if a kid is physically able to do it and wants to do it, our job is to continue to make it safer. But it’s much more dangerous riding a bike or a skateboard than playing youth football.

Listen to the full interview here. (Source: SoundCloud)

Maroon, who has made similar claims before, is likely citing research out of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, which suggests cycling accounts for nearly double the number of head-related injuries than football does, among both young children and the general population.

"The problem of CTE, although real, is being over-exaggerated and it’s being [unjustifiably] extrapolated to youth football and high school football,” he said. “It's a rare phenomenon [in youth football]."

Christopher Nowinski, the co-founder and executive director of the Sports Legacy Institute, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to the sports concussion crisis, called Maroon's bicycling-to-football comparison "false" in an email to The Huffington Post on Wednesday. From his statement:

The statement being made that it is more dangerous to ride a bike or skateboard than play youth football is false. The CDC found that regarding concussions, football is the most dangerous activity for boys age 10-14, causing more emergency department visits for brain injuries than both riding a bike or a skateboard. For ages 5-9, there are more brain injuries resulting from football than skateboarding. The most likely reason that more 5-9-year-old boys go to the ED with brain injuries resulting from bike accidents is that far more boys ride bikes than play football. It is unfortunate that this important information is being miscommunicated in the media ... In addition, it is not just concussions that make football dangerous for the brain, but it is also hundreds of subconcussive blows per year. Riding a bike or a skateboard are not known to cause hundreds of impact to the head in a year.

Maroon has a history of downplaying the dangers of football. According to Vox, he participated in a study as recently as 2013 that attempted to justify hits during youth football practice, which is something Pop Warner has decided to limit in recent years.

There is still much that is unknown about the long-term effects of youth football. But a recent study of former NFL players’ cognitive abilities found that those who started playing the sport before the age of 12 performed "significantly worse" on a series of tests than those who started later in life.

Participation in Pop Warner football, the largest youth football program in the country, has dropped significantly in recent years, and surveys have found that as many as half of Americans no longer want their child to play football.

That’s almost certainly due in part to concerns about the long-term consequences of the sport. Recent research has found that youth football players often experience head hits that parallel those at the high school and college level, but whether head hits at a young age affect someone more than head hits later on is not entirely clear.

There is more known about the effects of football at the professional level, since a number of former players have donated their brains to science. The NFL itself estimates that nearly 30 percent of players could develop Alzheimer’s or depression as a result of their playing careers, but other studies have reached more dismal conclusions. After researchers in Boston teamed up to look at 79 former NFL players’ brains, for example, they found signs of brain injury in 76 of them.

“I really believe that [football has] never been safer," Maroon said Tuesday. “The rules changes, the safer tackling techniques, the medical management of concussions [are] so much better than [they ever have] been in the history of the sport.”

San Francisco 49er Chris Borland retired abruptly this week after researching the effects of football on the brain. He said he was concerned for his long-term health.

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