For parents, it’s a difficult question to address: Should children be allowed to play contact sports?
According to a report from The Chicago Tribune, participation in youth football leagues has drastically declined in recent years. Parents say they’re worried for the health of their children.
“It certainly doesn’t help that concussion is on a lot of moms’ minds,” Adam Campbell, who runs Chicago’s Canaryville Lions football program, told The Chicago Tribune. “And I’m hearing it from dads who are saying, ‘I played but I don’t want my kids to play.'”
And some doctors say that those parents have the right idea.
“We need to develop more brain-friendly, healthier types of sports,” Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist, told TODAY. “We have elevated sports to the level of a religion. We’re in denial of the truth.”
Omalu, an accomplished physician who consulted on the Will Smith film Concussion, believes that the safest course of action is to pull kids out of dangerous sports, encouraging participation in non-contact sports like tennis and track instead.
A 2013 study published by the Radiological Society of North America showed that a single concussion can cause lasting structural brain damage, and the National Football League has acknowledged the connection between football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
As the evidence against contact sports stacks up, parents are reacting.
Other experts say that contact sports are okay for kids—as long as proper precautions are implemented.
Writing for the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital blog, pediatrician Dr. Greg Myer noted that instances of concussion probably aren’t increasing—we’re simply getting better at recognizing sports-related brain injuries.
Meyer writes that “some families have been scared into paralysis and are choosing to keep their kids out of sports altogether.” He goes on to say, “My advice to those parents is: please don’t be afraid to let kids play sports.”
Roger Blake, executive director of the California Interscholastic Federation, seems to agree with that assessment.
“Think of how far we have come in the last 20 to 30 years when it comes to concussion awareness, tackling techniques, equipment,” Blake told Sports Illustrated. “And yet we’re still having these discussions about declining participation and safety concerns.”
Doctors and scientists are working on new safety equipment to limit the risks of concussions. Myer, for example, is innovating an experimental concussion prevention collar that has performed well in trials.
“The most important implication is I want our kids to be able to play sports and feel safe from injury,” said Myer. “Best case scenario, we keep our kids staying active and playing sports. Secondly, being able to play a sport without the fear of injury. That’s what makes me most excited.”
In the meantime, parents should research sports carefully, talk to coaches, and invest in high-quality protective equipment. Parents should also learn to recognize the common symptoms of concussions, including headaches, feelings of pressure in the head, ringing in the ears, nausea, slurred speech, fatigue, and confusion. Younger children may also display irritability or listlessness.
“Please don’t let a headline in a newspaper or a reporter on TV make the decision for you,” Myer said. “Concussions in kids are a problem—don’t get me wrong. But the lifelong benefits of being active and playing sports at a young age far outweigh the risks of your child possibly becoming injured.”