It might be just a game, but it is a big one. Super Bowl XLIX (49 for non-Romans) kicks off Sunday night and, if last year is any guide, about one-third of the nation will be watching. Ratings for Super Vowl XLVIII revealed 112.2 million Americans tuned in for the contest.
America truly is obsessed with football. And not just at the professional level. College teams, after all, are the ones that construct stadiums with 100,000-plus capacity. High school teams attract the attention of entire communities in many small towns. Junior high teams might have so many participants they end up with A and B squads.
And young boys get introduced to the tackle game in organized leagues as young as 8 years old. Third grade certainly is not too young to begin learning skills needed to play, teamwork, sportsmanship, competition and all the other positive attributes that can be found on the gridiron.
But is it too young, even with all the emphasis on reducing head injuries and concussions, to play such a violent game? We usually would side with whatever the child wants to do -- and what his parents are willing to allow.
As more research continues to build up on the permanent damage that can result from repeated blows to the head, however, we find ourselves questioning the wisdom of starting too young.
A new study, published this week in the journal Neurology, examined cognitive capabilities of former NFL players. The sample size was small at 42, but large enough to contrast those who began playing tackle football after they were 12 and those who started younger. According to a Tribune News Service article, "the two groups were then put into matched pairs based on their age at the time of the study."
"We wanted to make sure we were not addressing issues having to do with the effects of current age on cognition or the potential differences in the way the game was played or practiced in the last several decades," said senior author Bob Stern, a professor of neurology, neurosurgery and anatomy and neurobiology at Boston University School of Medicine.
The players were tested for memory, mental flexibility, problem-solving and verbal intelligence. In all the cognitive areas studied, players who started tackle football before age 12 scored an average 20 percent worse than the other group. That is a significant difference.
Adding to that significance was an interesting sidenote: The players who waited until age 12 played in the NFL an average two years longer than the other group. That implies they likely sustained more head injuries as adults, but still had better cognitive skills later in life.
Stern, who also oversees clinical research for Boston University's Alzheimer Disease Center and the BU Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center, said the age of 12 was selected as the dividing line because it is an important time for the brain.
"Other research has shown that the brain undergoes key periods of development during childhood and that several brain structures and functions reach a peak or plateau leading up to the age of 12 in males," he said.
Like many other studies, the conclusions reached cannot correlate into direct cause and effect in all situations. And these were professional athletes, so applying results to the general population could be a stretch.
Still, it should give parents pause. It is estimated 70 percent of all football players in the U.S. today are younger than 14 and players between 9 and 12 are exposed to an average of 240 head impacts in a single football season.
Youth leagues such as the Pride of Kansas Football League serving northwest Kansas sign up young boys beginning in the third grade. The league does an admirable job educating coaches, referees and players alike on the dangers of head impacts. But the bottom line is parents have to sign a Medical Liability and Participation Liability Release that states, in part: "I am fully aware and understand that football is a contact/collision sport. As a result of this awareness and understanding, I acknowledge that serious injury is a possibility of participation ... " and take all responsibility for any injuries that might occur. It is standard boilerplate language, and something the league should do.
But parents should make themselves more aware about how serious those injuries can be. The effects of jostling a developing young brain too much might not show up until much later in life. Parents need to weigh those risks in a cost-benefit analysis of their own child.
Editorial by Patrick Lowry