By Dev Mishra, M.D.
President, Sideline Sports Doc
Clinical Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Stanford University
- A recently published scientific study showed that retired NFL players who started playing tackle football before age 12 scored substantially worse on tests of brain function than other players who started after age 12
- Both groups scored worse than the average person
- This study is important because it does not focus on concussion, it looks at the age at which the player started taking day to day contact in football
A scientific article was published on January 28, 2015 in the journal Neurology that will add to our discussion about the appropriate age to introduce tackling in youth football. You can view an abstract of the article here.
The article focused on the age at which retired NFL players began playing tackle football, and then correlated that age to their performance on tests of brain function after their retirement. The researchers chose age 12 as the cut-off because this is a critical age for brain development; children 12 and younger are still very immature in terms of brain development whereas those over age 12 are more mature. That’s an oversimplification but it will frame our discussion.
The key study result was that those players who started playing tackle football at age 12 or younger scored about 20% worse on almost all tests of brain function compared to those who started tackle football after age 12. If you’re wondering whether 20% is a big deal or not the answer is most definitely ‘yes it’s a big deal? in fact I’d say it’s an astoundingly large number. Additionally I’d like to point out that even the ‘over 12’ starting point performed worse than average, so both groups did poorly but those players starting before age 12 did really poorly.
And to be clear this study was not looking at concussions it was simply looking at the age at which the players started playing tackle football. In other words the study authors are really just looking at the effect of the routine day to day hits that occur in tackle football.
This is a well-designed study but does have some limitations. First of all, it studies former NFL players, so these players have gone well beyond high school and sustained many, many substantial impacts. We don’t know then what the effect would be on a boy who stops playing football after high school- is their brain function affected later in life too? And secondly, it’s just one study of a relatively small number of players, the results will need to be studied with a larger group of individuals.
Some organizations such as USA Hockey have taken a strong stance by introducing a minimum age for full body checking (it is legal starting at the under-14 age group). The study published this week in Neurology is just one study and can’t fully predict what the effect of the hits are on a young brain but it should at least prompt parents and leagues to ask some tough questions.
Opponents of age restrictions on tackling often argue that tackling is a critical component of high school and adult football, so the technique should be taught early on. There are also plenty who would say that imposing age restrictions creates a culture of softness that detracts from the game. For now, each of us ought to ask our own questions and do our own research. We may come to a time fairly soon when the governing organizations for youth football in America impose age restrictions on tackling. Stay tuned, the debate will heat up I’m sure.