Youth Football & Collisions: Really, Really, Really Bad News

ESPN just released this frightening data from the first study of youth football and the impact of head-to-head collisions:

The first-ever study to measure the head impacts among youth football players has found that some hits absorbed by second graders are as forceful as those in the college game, and that unlike at in high school and college football most of the severe hits occurred during practices.


The sample size was small, just seven players in a Virginia youth league between the ages of seven and eight. But its findings will help shape the debate about safety measures — and for some whether children should participate at all — in youth football, which is played by 3.5 million children below high school age. The average player in the study sustained 107 head impacts during the course of 9.4 practices and 4.7 games.

Most of those hits were modest in force, as measured by sensors installed in the padding of helmets. But some topped 80 g’s, similar to “some of the more severe impacts that college players experience, even though the youth players have less body mass and play at slower speeds,” the authors wrote. Boys of grade school and middle school age often lack the neck strength of teenagers, among other factors that can make them vulnerable to injury.

Read the whole piece (with thanks to Denny Burk).  It is positively chilling.

I wrote a piece on this kind of evidence two years ago for First Things Grantland recently published a piece that mused out loud whether football will be outlawed in the future in America; Malcolm Gladwell wondered the same a few years back in the New Yorker.  I don’t know what the future holds for American football, but it should be clear to anyone who cares about children that the physical nature of the game is jeopardizing their health.

Note that this is just the first study on this matter.  More will come. I suspect we will find exactly what many mothers and grandmothers have known by way of common sense for decades: that football as it is currently played is far more dangerous than we pretend it is.  In other words, I think many of us intuitively know that the game, though very fun and not wrong by nature, is in its present form nearly gladiatorial.  We treat the sport as if it’s low-risk, but in reality it is not.  It is high-risk.

There is a real challenge for Christians here.  I’m not saying that we cannot participate in or enjoy football, but studies like this one should alarm us.  Football is very dangerous for children, youth, and adults as it’s currently played.  Are we going to write material like this off?  Or will we realize that athletics fall under ethics, and help to lead the national conversation about how we can reform football to make it much safer?

Why have many Christians been silent on this issue?  Readers of this blog know that I love sports.  But I can’t love them more than I love wisdom, right?  The old translation of Proverbs 4:7 says it nicely: “In all your getting, get wisdom.”  I love that.  May we strive together on this point.

Some might counter by saying “football’s a way of life where I’m from.”  I understand that, but isn’t this whole gospel-driven movement about bringing all of life, not just your eternal destination, under the Lordship of Christ?  After all, setting widows on fire was a part of life in 19th-century India, but William Carey, heroic Baptist missionary, led the charge against that practice.  I hope that we will remember, with the Reformers, that Scripture is the “norm that norms all other norms” and bring the full force of the biblical conscience to a game that, though a gift of God’s common grace, is in dire need of Christian influence and wisdom.

(Image: Rob Tringali/Getty Images)

  • Mike Freeman

    As the father of an eight year old boy, this is troubling to say the least. I watch parents all around me ensure their children are in the right sports, on the right teams, and I often wonder where the health, safety, and general well being of the child comes into consideration.
    The struggle, as I see it, is this. Should you choose to defer enrolling your child in football when he is young, chances are he will never end up playing football. The children that play sports, more than ever before, are quickly separating from the children that don’t play sports. No one wants to risk their children not being able to make sports teams in high school because they started to late.
    Despite the fact that people have been raising children since Adam and Eve, every generation seems to want to make their children one grand experiment. What will happen if…..
    There is simply not enough data to tell us what the physical, emotional, and spiritual effects of enrolling small children in sports that require so much of time, effort, and risk will ultimately do. As such, I will steer clear of enrolling my eight year old son in high-risk or overly demanding sports.
    I am thankful for some homeschooling Dads in my area that organize sports such as soccer, basketball, wrestling (a surprisingly safe sport), track, and baseball. They limit practices, include Dad-led devotionals, and keep the fees super-low. I look forward to continuing these programs and encouraging non homeschooling families to join in the fun.
    Learning the fundamentals of sports is important, as is the character building that goes along with it. All things in life require balance, though, and I think that is the more important lesson to teach our children.

  • owenstrachan

    Those are very helpful thoughts, Mike. Thank you for them. I love the idea of these dads organizing sports to make them healthy and fun. That seems like a great program. Of course, it does place them out of the feeder system, and so there are consequences. I hear that. It’s surely tricky for parents, because you’re right–decisions you make when your kid is eight bear directly on his athletic future. That’s hard.

    One thought that haunts me, though, is this: at what price should athletic achievement come? The functioning of our child’s brain? What a terrible cost.

  • Adam B. Embry

    I can’t remember where I read it, but I believe Joe Paterno said that if high school / adult players didn’t have those high tech helmets and returned to wearing leather helmets instead there would be far fewer injuries.

    • owenstrachan

      It’s an interesting point, and I’ve heard that before, but I don’t agree. The thirst for glory in football is stronger than the instinct for self-protection, at least when the lights are on and the crowd is roaring.

      Great stuff on coffee, by the way.

  • Lynn Rutledge

    I can’t believe this is the first study on the helmet impact levels in youth football players. I hope there will be much more to follow along this line. This is not as black-and-white an issue as widow burning, but if there is incontrovertible evidence on the actual damage players are sustaining, it will be hard for Christians to ignore.

  • T. Webb

    I love football more than all other sports combined, but I will not let my sons play it when they get older. And I’m almost at the point of refusing to watch it at all.