A new approach for football: Get your head out of the game

Football players
The high school football season debuts in Minnesota tonight.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

Parents who are looking for authoritative answers to their questions about the safety of youth football, hockey and other sports may just have to wait.

Responding to concerns about the long-term effects of concussions and other injuries, people who work in youth sports are devising ways to make football safer. The trouble is, they don't know how serious the problem is or whether those initiatives will work.

"Coaching improvements and teaching proper tackling technique is probably the best way to try to mitigate some of these injuries," said Thomas Dompier, whose firm does data analysis of sports injuries. Thomas said. But he added, "The whole concept of teaching new tackling techniques is very new. It hasn't been studied yet."

Former Viking John Swain, who coaches high school football and represents the Heads Up Football program, pointed out that all contact sports cause injuries.

"Statistics state that you get more kids who are actually injured riding their bike or skateboarding than actual football," Swain said.

Dompier agreed. "As John said, there's risk in every sport, and there are other activities like skateboarding and some others that actually result in more deaths and catastrophic injuries. I think this is a sport problem, not just a football problem.

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"Any death is too many, but we do have to put it in the context of the overall picture," Dompier said. "Football is a great way for kids to get physical activity, and a lot of kids enjoy playing it. If they weren't playing football, they may not get any sort of physical activity. So I think it's important to consider it in the broader context of physical activity and some of the other crises that the country faces like obesity and childhood Type 2 diabetes. It's a bigger issue than just concussion and it's a bigger issue than just football."

Studies are underway, and more are under consideration, to determine the nature of the risk and the effectiveness of strategies to counter it. Of particular concern is a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which has been discovered in the brains of autopsied NFL players.

In response, Dompier said, coaches are "trying to reduce the number of overall hits to the head throughout the player's career, whether it be youth, high school and/or college or beyond. We don't know if there's some threshold number of hits, if there's a magnitude in terms of the amount of force during a hit. We don't know if CTE is the result of these repetitive impacts, we don't know what the number is. We don't know how severe it has to be. We don't even know if all of us may have some CTE in our heads to begin with. ... Maybe simply jogging might cause CTE to develop. We don't know any of those answers."

"It's such a new topic, we don't have those answers yet," Dompier said.

Swain said concerned parents should find out whether a team's coach allows hits during practice, and how many. He also stressed the importance of certified coaches, who know about symptoms and what to watch for.

"We want to teach where we lead with the shoulder, and take the head out of the game," Swain said. He said the rule is to "keep your head up ... as you hit, slide that head to the side."

Thomas suggested that parents of young players might want to limit the number of concussions their kids sustain. "One a season is probably enough," he said.


Heads Up Football program teaches kids proper way to play
The effects of head injuries on former players are scaring the NFL into rule changes at the highest level, but the league acknowledges that isn't enough. USA Football and the University of Pittsburgh have produced studies that show concussions are relatively rare in youth football, but the issue goes beyond just concussions. Boston University neurosurgery professor Dr. Robert Cantu believes kids shouldn't tackle before age 14. (St. Paul Pioneer Press)

A safety video from USA Football: