A 2017 study by the Boston University School of Medicine has shown a direct link between youth tackle football before age 12 and impaired behavior and mood later in life. This new study followed earlier research from Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center, which examined former professional football players.
According to Boston University’s original study, NFL players who started tackle football prior to age 12 had worse memory and mental flexibility, as well as brain changes on MRI scans, compared to players who started playing tackle football at age 12 or later.
Boston University’s most recent study showed that, “participation in youth football before age 12 increased the risk of problems with behavioral regulation, apathy, and executive functioning by two-fold and increased the risk of clinically elevated depression scores by three-fold. The increased risk was independent of the total number of years the participants played football, the number of concussions they reported, or whether they played through high school, college, or professionally.”
Researchers chose the age of 12 as a cut-off because between the ages of 10-12, the brain undergoes a major period of maturation and development. Other age cut-offs were considered, but the most dramatic change happens before the 12-year mark. Since the brain is continually developing into the teen years, a younger age of first exposure to tackle football was directly associated with worse clinical functioning.
According to the New York Times, supporting research by doctors at Wake Forest School of Medicine found that boys between the ages of 8 and 13 who played just one season of tackle football had diminished brain function in parts of their brains.
The National Football League has responded to this accumulation of research in professional football by promoting safer tackling techniques and penalizing players who purposely tackle unsafely or with a clear intent to injure the head. In youth football, flag football has become a more popular alternative to tackle, since it poses less of a risk of head injury and concussion.
According to Darren Miller, attorney at D. Miller Law, “Claims have been made against the National Football League accusing the organization of failing to warn and adequately protect their players from head injuries.” The New York Times has stated that Pop Warner, a popular youth football league, is facing a class-action lawsuit stating that it knowingly put players in danger by ignoring the risks of head trauma.
Although there are always risks involved in sports, the benefits of team-building, exercise, and coordination are something kids should not miss out on. The researchers at Boston University made it clear in their research that there are many important health and psychosocial benefits of participating in athletics and team sports during pre-adolescence. Making the sport safer, or providing safer alternatives such as flag football, is a great way to let youth experience the game without the high risks associated with tackle football.