Health Day Reporter
MONDAY, April 4, 2022 (HealthDay News) — As youth soccer enrollments begin this spring, a new study shows Americans may love their soccer ball, but half now believe kids don’t get the tackle version of the game should play .
The researchers found that of nearly 4,000 US adults surveyed, only 45% agreed that tackle football was an “appropriate sport for children.” Half disagreed, while the remaining 5% were unsure.
The survey did not address the reasons for these opinions. But it’s likely safety concerns were a big factor, said researcher Mariah Warner, a graduate student in sociology at Ohio State University in Columbus.
The biggest concern with football, she noted, is concussions – and whether repeated hits to the head could put young players at risk of long-term problems with memory or other brain functions.
Concerns have been heightened in recent years, in part because of high-profile cases of long-term brain injuries among former NFL players. Players like Frank Gifford and Junior Seau were found to have signs of a degenerative brain condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) after their deaths.
CTE is a form of brain degeneration thought to be caused by repeated head injuries. It has not only been found in former professional soccer players, but also in athletes who played other contact sports such as hockey and boxing.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the potential long-term effects of concussion in youth sports are unclear.
The AAP is one of many medical and sports-related groups that have developed strategies to make soccer safer for children. These include bans on headfirst attacks and certain “high-risk” drills, and the presence of athletic trainers at drills and matches to ensure players with potential concussions are removed from the field.
Some other possible fixes – including a ban on tackling before the age of 14 – remain controversial.
With this in mind, Warner and her colleague Chris Knoester wanted to get a sense of public opinion.
They turned to data from the National Sports and Society Survey, which collected Americans’ opinions on a range of sports-related issues. One question asked them to rate the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with the statement ‘Tackle football is an appropriate sport for children’.
It turned out that, as with so many things, Americans were split down the middle.
And there were different demographics separating the two camps, Warner said. Not surprisingly, straight men expressed more support for kids tackle football than women and people who identified as gay or bisexual.
Many of these differences were explained by personal experience, as straight men often played football as children. But broader ideologies also came into play: self-declared conservatives, for example, were more supportive of youth tackle football.
Meanwhile, low-income and black Americans held more positive opinions than higher-income and white respondents.
Warner said this may reflect the fact that these families have less choice over their children’s activities. Also, they may see football as a way to get college scholarships.
“People’s beliefs and opinions on this are complex,” Warner said. And that, she added, may be why reaching agreement on proposals like tackle bans is so difficult.
The results were published online March 26 in the journal social currents.
So whose side is “right”? That’s complicated too.
It’s true that compared to many other sports kids play, tackle football has a higher rate of concussions, said Thayne Munce, an exercise scientist at Sanford Health in Sioux Falls, SD, and a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine.
But he also said people’s opinions may be too heavily influenced by media attention to CTE among former NFL players – whose hard hitting years are vastly different from the experience of kids playing youth football.
Also, said Munce, today’s youth football is very different from what it used to be.
“I think what has been left out of the public discourse is how the game is moving in the right direction,” he said.
In a recent study, his team found evidence that concussion awareness and new safety recommendations are making a difference. They tracked a youth soccer team over eight seasons using helmet-mounted impact monitors. During that time, children’s headbutts – which can cause concussions – fell by 79%.
What is the absolute risk of concussion for children?
Boys’ tackle football has the highest concussion rate at the high school level, according to a 2018 AAP report. The rate is approximately 0.5 to 0.9 concussions per 1,000 games and practices. (Next on the list was girls’ soccer, at rates of 0.3 to 0.7 per 1,000.)
Figures from youth football are more difficult to collect, Munce said. Perhaps even more difficult for parents, he noted, is balancing the risk of injury against the many benefits children derive from playing team sports.
Restricting younger players to flag football might seem like a no-brainer: all the benefits with a lot fewer headbutts.
But, Munce said, some argue that the delay in teaching proper tackle techniques could backfire: Bigger, harder-hitting high school athletes could end up with more concussions.
“The answer is, we just don’t know,” Munce said.
Some also worry that such delays would affect players’ overall skills, Warner said.
“But,” she noted, “Tom Brady didn’t play tackle football until he was 14.”
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found out more about concussions in youth sports.
SOURCES: Mariah Warner, graduate student, sociology, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio; Thayne Munce, PhD, Sanford Health, Sioux Falls, SD, and Fellow, American College of Sports Medicine, Indianapolis; Social Currents, March 26, 2022, online