We Need To Rethink Tackle Football For The Youngest Players

By Dev K. Mishra, M.D.
President, Sideline Sports Doc
Clinical Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Stanford University

Key Points:

• There is increasing pressure on youth and adolescent football leagues to reduce concussion risk in the younger players
• Possible solutions include “heads up” tackling, better helmets, and eliminating tackle football at the younger age groups
• Football’s governing bodies might be wise to consider a model similar to USA Hockey’s American Development Model (ADM), with age restrictions on tackling
• This emotionally charged issue needs careful objective analysis soon, as the sport could be at a crossroads for youth participation

Let me say from the start that I love NFL football. Let me also say that I’ve seen shifts in participation at the high school and younger levels that have the potential to rapidly reduce the number of young football players. One factor I consistently hear from parents who hold their sons from tackle football is the need to reduce concussion risk.

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There is increasing pressure on the local leagues and national governing bodies for football to recognize the risks on the young developing brain, and to take strong steps to reduce the concussion risk in the youth football player. One step being taken by some leagues is to eliminate tackle football until a certain age group, typically around age 13 or 14. This New York Times article highlights the decision by one Texas league to do just that, and the generally supportive response from the parents. The league decided for a number of reasons that to introduce tackle football to 7th graders and younger was an unacceptable risk. They are promoting flag football in those age groups and phasing in tackle from 8th grade and up.

There are several facts that have emerged over the past several years regarding risk of concussion in the younger age groups. Amongst those are the facts that the young developing brain is more susceptible to injury than a mature brain (meaning it takes less force to produce a concussion in a young athlete than an adult), concussions in young athletes can take longer to recover than older athletes, and there is a significant size differential possible in boys age 13-14 who are going through puberty. It also appears that the rate of concussion is rising, although some of that may be due to increased awareness and diagnosis of concussion amongst medical professionals.

Parents are definitely holding kids back from tackle football specifically due to concussion risk. USA Football promotes coach certification for Heads Up tackling, which is certainly a step in the right direction. Helmet manufacturers are making safer helmets. I believe age restrictions on tackling will be coming soon from the national youth football organizations. My opinion is that we will need to carefully and objectively examine this issue further, and consider something similar to what USA Hockey has done with the ADM which places a minimum age of 14 for body checking. Let’s address this issue now and improve football safety for all young players.