"Should my son play tackle football" is a question I receive on a very frequent basis. Parents are more concerned than ever about the risks that come with playing this collision sport. The first question I ask the parent in return is "Does your son really want to play tackle football?" Football is a rigorous, gladiator-style sport. It often pushes boys towards their limits with regards to commitment, fear, body contact and fitness level. These "pushes" can be a positive thing for your son, but if he is not enthusiastic about playing this sport, then your question has been answered. I strongly discourage participation in football if your son doesn't want to be on that field.
Here are the reasons your son SHOULD play football:
- He becomes part of a team, something bigger than himself. Bonding is often very high among football teammates, as they adopt an "in the trenches together" mentality
- Courage, dedication, loyalty, sportsmanship and confidence are valuable character traits that often develop with a successful football experience
- Improved fitness levels- football is a sport requiring endurance, speed, quickness and power, with some positions emphasizing more of these traits than others
- Mentoring- many football coaches become like father-figures to young men, teaching them important life lessons while teaching them football as well
Here are the reasons your son should NOT play football:
- First and foremost, he doesn't want to play
- The risk of injury. Here are some important injury-risk considerations:
- Size and strength deficits- if your son is physically less developed than many other peers competing in football, then his risk is increased. If the team or league is allowing 140 lb. boys block and tackle 225 lb. boys and vice-versa, then the smaller boy's risk is much greater. In the youth leagues, rules are often in place to reduce this effect. In the high school environment, it is up to the coaches to ensure the safety of the smaller athletes.
- Concussions- we could create an entire blog on this subject, but in a nutshell, concussions are common at all levels of football. Contrary to most conditions in medicine, concussion symptoms in younger football players often last longer than those more mature. New evidence is suggesting that the earlier the age one starts having concussions, the greater the risk of long-term problems such as memory deficits and depression, just to name a few. Also, the multiple concussions likely create a cumulative effect, meaning several concussions in a relatively short period of time create more long-term damage than one concussion or a few concussions separated by many years. Simply put, someone playing tackle football for 10 years is much more likely to have more concussions, whether diagnosed or not, than one playing for only 3 years. Improved equipment such as helmets and better tackling techniques may reduce the severity and risk of concussions, but no equipment or rule adjustment can significantly reduce or eliminate concussions.
- Orthopedic Injuries- minor contusions and sprains are part of the game for nearly every player and heal without consequence. However, some fractures and ligament sprains, although appropriately treated, leave football players with long-term pain and dysfunction. For example, despite a successful ACL-reconstruction surgery after an ACL tear, 50% of athletes have knee arthritis within 12 years of the injury. In addition, repetitive microinjury to the back likely leads to an increased risk of disc problems in the cervical and lumbar spine.
When weighing the risk of injury as it relates to football participation, consider not only the immediate impact of injury, but also the long-term implications of concussions and orthopedic injuries.
If there is an opportunity to play flag football, then I encourage one to play this version for as long as possible. In my opinion, tackle football is a sport that be re-joined or joined for the first time at a later age, perhaps 9th or 10th grade without a major roadblock to success. Years of tackle football does not necessarily guarantee success at higher levels such as high school or college. In fact, beginning tackle football at a young age can lead to burnout or injuries that derail one's ability and desire to continuing playing into middle and high school.
In conclusion, the decision of whether your son plays tackle football or not must be one thoughtfully considered by and discussed among the athlete and his family members. Risks and benefits for your child should be carefully weighed.
F. Clarke Holmes, M.D.
Impact Sports Medicine and Orthopedics, PLLC