10 June 2022

Tackling Football

Welcome back. Although I never last an entire game, I like watching football. About a month ago, I even watched some of the National Football League (NFL) Draft. I didn’t know any of the players, but the video clips were great.

An official National Football League football (ESPN).
Still, the link between playing football and the risk of developing brain disorders has received so much attention over the past 15 years, I can’t help wondering about football’s future. The NFL finally stepped forward to address the problem, but it hasn’t gone away. And it doesn’t necessarily start with professional football.

I’ll highlight two recently published studies on college and youth football.

College Football Players

Boston University researchers examined the long-term health outcomes and mortality rates of former University of Notre Dame football players who were seniors on the 1964-1980 rosters. The target group of 447 players was likely the last to play their entire careers wearing hard plastic helmets and face masks. The study was assisted by the steering committee of a group of former Notre Dame football players. 

The new head coach, Ara Parseghian, and team captain Jim Carroll (60) lead Notre Dame onto the field for picture day, 31 Aug 1964. Parseghian brought Notre Dame into national prominence from 1964-74 with a record of 95-17-4 and two national championships. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as a coach in 1980 (SBT File Photo from NDInsider).
The researchers developed an online survey that addressed general health conditions, including diagnosis or treatment for cognitive, neurological, psychiatric, cardiovascular, orthopedic and sleep conditions, as well as a Satisfaction with Life Scale.
They obtained contact information for 406 of the 447 former players or their next of kin through the steering committee and other sources. If a former player was deceased or did not meet predetermined decisional capacity standards, a family member was asked to complete the survey.

To compare medical conditions of the former football players with that of men in the general population, they used data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a longitudinal study of a representative sample of US adults older than 50 years.

Health Survey Results
Of the 406 individuals invited to participate in the survey, 216 living former players and 18 next of kin responded. Most players were White (200), and 33 played professional football.

Comparison of the former players with a matched sample of 638 HRS participants found the former players were 5 times more likely to report cognitive impairment diagnoses, 2.5 times more likely to report recurrent headaches, 65% more likely to report cardiovascular disorders, yet nearly half as likely to report diabetes. The players’ median score on the Satisfaction with Life Scale indicated they were satisfied to highly satisfied with their life overall.

Although mortality among all former players was significantly lower than that in the general male population, mortality from brain and other nervous system cancers was higher.

Youth Tackle Football
A study by researchers affiliated with Ohio State University reported that about 50% of Americans thought tackle football was not appropriate for kids, 45% thought it was and 5% didn’t know. Although youth age wasn’t specified, other evidence suggests there’s much more concern about kids under 13 than those in high school.

Weighted estimates of U.S. adults’ opinions about tackle football being an appropriate sport for kids (from journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/23294965221074017).
The data were from the National Sports and Society Survey (NSASS), sponsored by Ohio State’s Sports and Society Initiative. The survey was completed between fall 2018 and spring 2019 by 3,993 adults from all 50 states. Because NSASS participants are disproportionately female, White and Midwestern, the researchers weighted the survey results to reflect the U.S. population more accurately.

Digging Deeper
The study captured the divisions of support and opposition.

Black Americans and those with no more than a high school education were not as negative about youth tackle football as were White Americans and college educated. Higher-income adults were more likely to oppose youth football.

Men and heterosexuals were more likely to support youth football. So too were those who identified as more conservative, believing traditional gender roles, who thought playing sports was part of being American and said they were Christian. Also supportive were those who thought sports built character and collision sports had health benefits.

People in rural areas were more supportive than those in the suburbs, and support in the Midwest and South was generally higher than in the West. Being immersed in football cultures played a major role.

Wrap Up
Despite advances in protective technology and rule changes to improve safety, football has the highest rate of American college sports injuries.

Has the NFL done enough? Can college football do more to improve safety? Should youth play tackle? Additional research should help, but can we wait?

Thanks for stopping by.

The movie Concussion and biography of Dr. Bennet Omalu, Nigerian-born pathologist who brought the issue of brain damage in retired NFL players to the forefront:

Notre Dame football player study in JAMA Network Open: jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2791303
Article on Notre Dame player study on EurekAlert! website: www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/950116
Health and Retirement Study: hrs.isr.umich.edu/about

Youth football study in Social Currents journal: journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/23294965221074017
Article on youth football study on EurekAlert! website: www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/948103
National Sports and Society Survey: nsass.org/
Sports and Society Initiative: sportsandsociety.osu.edu/

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