Culture

Study Finds Brain Tissue 'Changes' After Just 1 Season of Youth Football

It’s one thing when grown men commit to playing a dangerous game like professional football for huge financial gain. They know the risks, or at least think they do. It is an entirely different situation when little kids are doing it just because they think it’s fun and/or because their friends are doing it. An eight year old certainly doesn’t grasp the risks and, to be honest, until recently even the adults weren’t clear on how dangerous football might be when the bodies are smaller, slower, and not hitting each other very hard. Now they’re trying to find out:

Player safety concerns over head injuries in the NFL have trickled down to youth football.

In a study released Monday, researchers at the Wake Forest School of Medicine found that head impact exposure — the type that doesn’t result in concussions — in youth football leads to “changes in the brain’s white matter,” the tissue responsible for communication in the brain.

Exactly what “changes” means, however, is something the researchers themselves don’t know yet.

Increased safety concerns in youth and professional football have led to a hyper-awareness of head injuries in recent years. The NFL — which finally admitted the link between football and concussions earlier this year — pledged $100 million to concussion research initiatives last month.

Dr. Christopher Whitlow and his team studied youth football players ages eight to 13 over the course of a season. The players wore helmets that tracked head impact, and underwent brain scans before and after the season.

And while “changes” in brain tissue might sound scary, there’s really no way of knowing how they could affect children’s lives. The researchers are unclear whether or not the changes are permanent. The changes are so subtle, in fact, that brain experts wouldn’t be able to identify evidence of brain trauma if they didn’t see the brain scans before the season started.

The only point of concern, according to Whitlow, is the fact that white matter is still developing in kids of that age, so certain changes could have lasting effects on brain function. Per Time, Whitlow will follow some players for a longer duration to see how additional head impact affects the results.

This is where professional football may see its ultimate unraveling. Parents may simply decide that it’s downside is simply not worth exposing their children to. Even if it is proven that the game isn’t as risky at the younger levels, high school programs might buckle under the threat of litigation. All it takes it one successful lawsuit by the parents of an injured player and schools will need some hefty liability insurance. What’s easier, paying for the insurance or simply dropping football altogether?

Admittedly, those scenarios are probably far off, but both are often discussed among football fans.

When the game of American football was developed, 300 lb men weren’t fast and covered in protective equipment that enabled them to launch themselves like beefy human missiles at other players. Technology that was designed for safety has combined with ever-evolving athleticism to have almost the opposite effect. The game’s hopes for survival may rest on it becoming a watered-down, less entertaining version of what made it so popular.