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The Youth Football Dilemma

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The summer's international multi-sport events are now a part of history. The world congratulates London for the wonderful presentation of the Olympics. The third time around for London hosting the Olympic Games was not only the charm, but just plain charming. And, the British organizers added the best-attended Paralympic Games ever, a fitting historical tribute given the genesis of the Paralympic Games at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, near London, in Aylesbury, England. Originally conceived as a great way to rehabilitate physically impaired British World War II veterans, the para-athlete movement has grown to every continent and came of age this year in London.

But the focus of the sports minded public in the United States has turned to our fall festival of American Football. That annual meeting of strong teams in battle gear facing the elements and each other on the open field.

As president of the LA84 Foundation I have a dilemma. It is the same dilemma that faces parents across the country as they consider whether to allow their children to play the sport.

Each year the foundation, as part of its broad support of Southern California youth sports, makes grants to youth football organizations. These teams and leagues play tackle football. Each year also brings more evidence of the risks of head injury associated with football.

We are fully aware, that football provides a structured environment where young men and some young women can learn a sport, exercise, interact with adult role models and use their time constructively. I have heard too many firsthand accounts from young people about the positive influence of sport in their lives to dismiss this as a mere cliché.

And yet, the positive social impacts of youth football must be weighed against the health consequences of repeated blows to the head. This week the LA84 Foundation's blog SportsLetter interviewed Dr. Robert Cantu about his new book, Concussions and Our Kids: America's Leading Expert on How to Protect Young Athletes and Keep Sports Safe (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), co-authored by Mark Hyman.

Cantu is no casual observer. He is the chief of neurosurgery and director of the Service of Sports Medicine at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Mass. He also co-directs the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University, which is investigating the link between concussions and progressive brain disease.

Cantu recommends that parents hold their children out of tackle football until they reach high school age. "Youngsters have big heads and weak necks," he said, "and that bobblehead-doll setup puts them at much greater risk for concussion. That's especially true through ages five to eight."

He adds, "You cannot condition the brain to taking blows. If you subject the brain to enough head trauma, permanent brain damage may happen ... the earlier we start accumulating trauma, the more likely we are to have more of it by the time we get to be an adult."

Cantu also warns against relying on better helmets to solve the problem: "That's because the most injurious acceleration the brain can get is a rotational one, where the head is spun violently. The helmets don't do very much at all about attenuating those forces."

In recent years, the LA84 Foundation has funded tackle training developed by Bobby Hosea's Train 'Em Up Academy and taught by USA Football. Hosea's "helmet free" approach teaches players to hit hard with their shoulder and chest pads instead of leading with their heads. A small pilot study found that the technique in fact does reduce head impact. Cantu expresses "100 percent" support for the "helmet free" concept, but still advises that children would be better off not tackling at all.

So, where does that leave parents and organizations with an interest in youth sports? The consensus at this point seems to be that because youth tackle football is so culturally ingrained, the best course of action is to implement policies that make kids tackling as safe as possible. It remains to be seen, however, whether this consensus will hold. It is likely that an increasing number of Americans will question this position.