With year-over-year ratings continuing to decline, the National Football League may have a bigger problem than presidential tweets or the national anthem. In less than two years, the NFL has paid out over $500 million in concussion settlements to thousands of retired players, and that may just be the beginning.
Despite an increase in awareness concerning brain trauma in popular contact sports like football, the number of recorded concussions during the 2017 NFL season rose as well. Even with changes to the game rules, the league still can’t completely stop its athletes from being injured, and this may not be exclusive to professional sports, either. Dr. Bennet Omalu – a forensic pathologist portrayed by Will Smith in the 2015 film “Concussion” – recently warned parents not to allow their children to participate in high-impact contact sports like football or hockey until they’re 18 years old for fear of permanent health consequences.
But how seriously do parents take these warnings, and do health trends in professional sports impact the way people approach youth leagues? We surveyed 835 people about which popular contact sports they thought were the most dangerous, how old their children needed to be to play, and how acceptable head-to-head contact was at various ages. Read on as we explore the lengths at which parents were willing to go to institute change in popular contact sports.
Perceiving the Perils
Professional athletes aren’t the only ones getting injured on the field. Children can be seriously injured doing everything from playing basketball to bowling, and there may be no age limit when it comes to long-lasting consequences.
Respondents perceived football and hockey to be the most dangerous contact sports, regardless of the sports level. Since 1982, there have been 111 fatalities in high school football, and 15 percent of students playing ice hockey sustain serious concussions each year.
Sports with less physical contact like volleyball and softball were perceived as the least dangerous. However, even if players aren’t constantly colliding with each other they way they do in football or hockey, it doesn’t mean harm can’t befall them. In 2012, more than 100,000 high school students were sent to the ER as a result of baseball or softball injuries, and soccer-related injuries have increased by roughly 78 percent in the last 25 years.
Next, we asked respondents with no previous sports history about how dangerous they perceived each sport to be. Ninety-seven percent of parents agreed football was dangerous for children to play at the youth level. Studies have linked contact youth football with permanent brain damage later in life, and children as young as 12 who play tackle football have increased odds of experiencing behavioral and cognitive decline as a result of their injuries. Another 89 percent of parents had the same perception of hockey, which can be just as dangerous as contact football where brain injuries are concerned.
In some cases, however, non-parents had a more negative perception of sports than parents. More than half of non-parents considered both youth and high school gymnastics to be dangerous. There’s no denying gymnastics is a high-impact sport, and men and women who participate in competitive gymnastics sometimes push their bodies so hard that they develop chronic and lifelong pain years later.
Basketball, softball, and volleyball were the least concerning to non-parents and parents alike. Still, that doesn’t mean they don’t have their dangerous moments. Basketball is responsible for the highest number of high school injuries compared to any other sport, including both football and soccer.
Point of Entry
Most parents want to give their children the best opportunities possible, but where contact sports are concerned, earlier may not always be better. On paper, there are plenty of advantages to competitive sports for young children, including learning new skills, having fun, and getting quality exercise. But that isn’t all they’ll likely receive.
Experts recommend not allowing children to play contact sports until they are at least middle school age (11 or 12), and even then, parents should exercise caution in how often and for which sports they greenlight their kids. Pro athletes have gone on record expressing their worry and, in some cases, prohibiting their own children from participating in sports.
According to respondents, the most appropriate contact sport for children at the youngest age was soccer at just over 7 years old. On the surface, soccer may not seem risky, but as youth-related soccer injuries continue to rise, parents may want to take heed of how early they allow their kids to lace up their cleats.
While basketball, gymnastics, softball, and baseball were all deemed appropriate for children under the age of 8, football, lacrosse, and hockey were considered fair game for children under 10. Considering the long-term effects of brain injuries sustained even in youth programs, these ages may be much too young for most children and their developing bodies.
Understanding Brain Injuries
Even one concussion can cause structural damage to the brain that could last for the rest of children’s lives. During the 2017 NFL season, there were 281 reported concussions, a six-year high. While that number is arguably high, it only represents the number of concussions identified by players or officials. Many more could go undiagnosed over the course of the season. Studies also show that between 10 and 20 percent of concussion victims experience symptoms more than a year after sustaining their head injuries.
People had varying opinions on how often children and teenage athletes should be allowed to sustain head injuries of any kind. Between ages 6 and 14, the average response indicated not even one physical blow to the head was acceptable in youth sports programs. By the time students reached the high school level, people largely agreed up to two hits to the head was still acceptable, and the same was said for collegiate athletes with almost three hits to the head. For professional sports, people suggested athletes could sustain almost five blows to the head and still be considered acceptable by their safety standards.
While some people said head injuries were never acceptable, 9 percent said a person could sustain 21 or more hits to the head during their sports lifetime and still be OK. Overwhelming, people believed it was most acceptable for athletes to experience hits to the head while playing football.
A Case of Concussions
Concussions are considered a mild form of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) that significantly affect how the brain and body function afterward. While an athlete may only experience some of these symptoms for a few hours, others may develop long-term health problems that last for years after sustaining the initial injury. Every year, roughly 300,000 TBIs occur as a result of sports and sports-related activities, and women are typically more susceptible than men.
An athlete may experience headaches, momentary lapses of consciousness, blurred vision, and fatigue after sustaining a concussion, which can then evolve into more long-term effects, including trouble concentrating, memory problems, sleep disturbances, and depression.
In 2015, football athletes between the ages of 5 and 64 reported nearly 400,000 concussion-related injuries, and that head trauma accounted for 8 percent of injuries. In hockey, the number of overall concussions was lower (less than 47,000), but they accounted for more than 1 in 5 total injuries across the entire sport. The number of concussions was similarly high among athletes practicing gymnastics, although accounting for 2 percent of total injuries.
It’s been nearly a decade since the NFL started instating rules to the game (and official commentary) designed to reduce the amount of physical strain on players and help eliminate traumatic brain injuries that have had fatal consequences. Every year, though, it seems those adjustments simply aren’t enough. The rules change, the equipment evolves, and still, the NFL reported a six-year high for concussion injuries after the 2017 season.
So which sports do most people agree need the biggest changes? Forty-seven percent of men and 35 percent of women agreed football still needed safer protocols to prevent injuries. Another 30 percent of men and 25 percent of women voted for changes to hockey to make it safer. Regarding gymnastics, women felt more strongly than men, with 12 percent of women and 8 percent of men signing on for changes.
An Actionable Difference
So how far are parents and non-parents willing to go to see changes made to popular contact sports? Until they felt football had become safe to participate in again, 43 percent of parents and 31 percent of non-parents would ban their children from competing. Another 16 percent of non-parents would stop attending games unless things changed for the better.
Understandably, a lot of parents agreed with banning their children from competing in contact sports that could leave them seriously injured. Thirty-three percent would pull their kids out of hockey, and 17 percent would do the same for lacrosse. In contrast, non-parents were more likely to stop watching sports until the need for change was taken more seriously. Like the NFL, sports viewership across America has decreased in recent years.
Sports aren’t just a way to teach children about good sportsmanship or something we watch on Sundays to stay entertained; they’re arguably a part of American culture and ingrained into the very fabric of who we are and what we love. Football is more than touchdowns and field goals; for millions of people, it evokes memories, local pride, and serious business. But that could be changing if certain contact sports don’t become safer for athletes of all ages.
While some people still had a limited understanding of just how detrimental physical impact to the head can be for athletes at any age, most people still wanted to see sports like football and hockey make significant changes for player safety. In the meantime, parents may start pulling their children from participating, and viewers may start to tune out games to ensure their concerns are taken seriously.
At Injury Claim Coach, our mission is to teach you everything you need to know about the personal injury claim and settlement process. Serious injuries can occur from the mentioned activities and other dangerous sports. By exploring our claim guides, previous case types, and even state laws, you can decide for yourself whether pursuing a personal injury claim is the right course of action for you or on behalf of your child.
We collected responses from 835 people about sports safety from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. The sports selected and represented within the study were chosen from a list of contact sports and then narrowed down based on popularity. Questions dealing with head injuries were specifically asked as “Is there a sport in which you think it is more acceptable for an athlete to get hit on the head?” and “How many times do you think it is acceptable for an athlete to get hit on the head?” Fifty-eight percent of participants were men, and 42 percent were women. Participants ranged in age from 19 to 76 with a mean of 36 and a standard deviation of 12. We weighted the data to the 2016 U.S. census for gender, state, and age.
This campaign’s data depends on self-reporting. There are some complications with self-reported data, such as: selective amnesia, abstraction, attribution, and exaggeration. Statistical testing was not conducted, and as such, the findings above are based on means alone. This study is purely experimental. Research done in the future should explore this topic more thoroughly.
Respondents were not given an “Other” category when asked what actions they would be willing to take to ensure changes were implemented that would lessen player injuries. They were given an option to select that no change was needed. To ensure fairness, we did not include numbers around those who felt no change was needed due to a possible selection on the basis there was no other category.
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