All states have youth sports concussion safety laws that require schools, interscholastic athletic associations, and often youth sporting organizations to follow “concussion protocols” in an effort to protect children from the potentially debilitating consequences of head injury. Last week, two California lawmakers went further in introducing legislation that would set a minimum age for children who want to participate in organized tackle football. This action follows similar measures recently introduced to the Illinois, New York, and Maryland legislatures. While none of these measures have been signed into law, their introduction is a clear indication of the heightened level of public concern about youth sports and concussion risk.
A growing body of scientific evidence supports the hypothesis that concussions can lead to serious neurological impairment. Just how “latent” this disease process can be is not well understood, but scientists are examining harms such at Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, which can be apparent at younger ages (but only post-mortem), along with diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, which are typically diagnosed later in life. This scientific evidence now supports a significant level of litigation against professional sports leagues (e.g., NFL, NHL), athletic associations (e.g., NCAA, Big Ten), youth sports leagues (e.g., Pop Warner), and product makers (e.g., Riddell).
The research on the long-term impact of concussions began with adult populations, but it should be no surprise that researchers soon turned their attention to children. A number of recent studies suggest that concussions in childhood can have lasting effects. For example, researchers at Boston University reported that playing tackle football before age 12 is associated with a doubling of the risk of developing behavioral problems and a 3-fold increase in the risk of depression later in life.
Another recently published study of teenage athletes suggests that “subconcussive” hits to the head, not just recognized concussions, are what leads to permanent brain injury. If this research holds, the implication may be that following a concussion protocol, while certainly helpful, may not by itself prevent long-term neurological injury.
The passage of laws setting minimum age standards for tackle football would likely significantly reduce the risk of concussion-related litigation stemming from youth tackle football. The fate of these laws, though, is far from certain. Despite the real dangers of concussion, banning organized youth tackle football might be perceived as government overreach. In the meantime, the evolving science around the long-term effects of repetitive subconcussive hits and the fact that children cannot provide informed consent may give parents, athletic organizations, equipment manufacturers, and their insurers pause in evaluating whether concussion protocols sufficiently mitigate the risk.
“These kids are bigger, faster, and he’s not a real big kid,” Eby said. Pop Warner, he added, assigns players by weight as well as age, and coaches limit contact during practices to reduce potential for injury. “We don’t put 150-pound lineman against a 90-pound safety,” Eby said. “My son has taken numerous hits and never had a concussion. I promised my wife if he ever gets a concussion that’s the end of football. We won’t go to concussion number two.”