Millions have viewed “Some Serious Pee Wee Football Collisions” on YouTube, watching little footballers make serious head-to-head contact while adults on the sidelines cheer and laugh. It’s rather disturbing to watch:
The serious, lifelong injuries that can result from those hits is no laughing matter.
Children are more vulnerable than any other age group to concussions and other traumatic brain injuries. Yet we put our little ones in sub-par equipment and the care of coaches who have no knowledge of how to keep young athletes safe from harm.
When a pee wee football player suffers a head injury, who is to blame? The coach who didn’t teach proper technique? The league that didn’t train the coaches? The protective equipment that failed to protect? Or the parents who put their child in harm’s way?
Who’s coaching your child?
In the controversial 2013 documentary The United States of Football, Hall of Fame wide receiver Cris Carter said, “Our worst coaches are coaching the most critical position—the 9-, 10-, and 11-year-old people.”
Coaches have great influence in teaching proper sportsmanship and sports mechanics. They’re also the first responders if an injury occurs. Some youth leagues (like Pop Warner, with more than a quarter of a million players nationwide) require coaches to complete an online course every few years, but it’s not enough. In reality, most youth teams are coached by anyone who’s willing to volunteer (translation: untrained parents who just want their kids to play football). Without properly trained coaches, kids are bound to get hurt.
Jesse Harper, president and CEO of sports technology company i1 Biometrics, notes that adequate coaching education is essential to improving safety. “USA Football, for example, has a free Heads Up program that teaches proper coaching, including technique and tackling,” he says. “This, coupled with the background checks and CPR certification should be the standard practice for all leagues and coaches.”
Is the equipment strong enough to allow tackling?
Sports equipment is designed to protect players from harmful injuries, but it’s not foolproof. “As a manufacturer of sporting equipment, I believe there is a significant role for equipment and technology to play in improving sport safety,” says Harper.
“Equipment is designed to reduce risk and provide better safety for players, but it cannot completely remove the risk from the activity,” says Harper. “Helmets, for example, are not designed to stop concussions. They are designed to prevent skull fractures (a role they are highly effective at doing). New helmet designs are more concussion-focused, but they do not prevent concussions.”
“We believe that children ages 3 to 14 should not participate in tackle sports,” says Brian Sanders, president and COO of i9 Sports, a youth sports league franchiser that offers only flag football—no tackle—through its 1,100 leagues. Parents of i9 athletes are required to sign a concussions safety information page as part of the process, and coaches and officials are provided with concussion information guides.
“Flag football provides the benefits of learning the sport without the dangers of full-contact tackle football,” says Sanders.
Concussions and the developing brain
Every year, 3.5 million children under age 14 are treated for sports injuries, according to the CDC. Football injuries run the gamut—from scraped elbows and twisted ankles to torn ligaments and broken bones—but it’s the head injuries that are most unsettling.
“A concussion is a brain injury caused by a jarring of the brain,” says physician Fred Klingbeil, medical director of the pediatric rehabilitation program at ChildServe. “Compared to adults, youth traumatic brain injuries tend to be more severe and have a longer recovery.”
Marie Csete, president and chief scientist at Huntington Medical Research Institutes agrees. “Human brain development doesn’t stop at birth—it extends into the 20s. Hitting a developing brain versus an established ‘wired’ brain has different consequences.”
Parents know that shaking a baby is criminal. Injuries similar to shaken baby syndrome occur when a young athlete suffers a concussion, but parents don’t go to prison for putting their kid in a football uniform.
Every concussion should be taken seriously. Many symptoms may occur, some immediately and others years later. “It can be difficult to distinguish delayed concussion symptoms from other behaviors associated with teens,” cautions Klingbeil.
And it’s not just concussions that are worrisome. Researchers at leading institutions around the world are examining the neurological changes caused by smaller and repeated sub-concussive blows to the head.
When in doubt, sit them out
Sometimes there are no symptoms, but there are changes in brain chemistry that may not be seen on a CT scan or MRI. These changes can persist for weeks or months.
“If a youth suffers another concussion while still recovering from a previous one, the result could be a very serious, life-threatening situation known as “second impact syndrome,” says Klingbeil. “This is why it is very important to make sure the youth has recovered completely before returning to his sport.”
Since concussion symptoms are not always evident, it is wise to err on the side of caution. “An athlete in our program who is suspected of sustaining a concussion or head injury will be removed from the practice or game immediately and will not be allowed to return to play without written clearance from a licensed healthcare provider,” says i9 Sport’s Sanders.
So, is pee wee football child abuse?
“We’re not quite at the criminal stage yet because pee wee football is so widely accepted,” says forensic psychiatrist Carole Lieberman. “First will come the civil suits: parents will sue coaches, and parents going through divorce will sue each other, blaming the parent who was more instrumental in putting the child in pee wee football.”
Meanwhile, parents will continue to put kids in pads, send them off to untrained coaches, and sign waivers that release everyone from liability. Child abuse? Probably not. Irresponsible parenting? Maybe.
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