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NFL can't ethically endorse tackle football for kids

Two stories about the National Football League caught my attention this month. If you're a parent whose kid is strapping on a helmet and shoulder pads this fall, you ought to pay attention, too.

Story One:

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This week, a Boston University medical team published research that renews concern about a link between the sort of head-banging that's routine — and to some extent inevitable — in the NFL and a devastating brain disease, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.

Of 111 pro football players in the study, 110 showed evidence of CTE. It's far from a random study, as the B.U. researchers were quick to point out. (Most donors were suspected of brain disease before they died.) Still, a 99 percent positive rate tells a story — one that reportedly led the Raven's John Urschel, who has been pursuing a Ph.D. in applied mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the off season, to announce his retirement Thursday.

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Researchers studying the link between football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy found that 99 percent of the brains donated by families of former NFL

Story Two:

Two weeks ago, the NFL Miami Dolphins staged a "Moms Clinic" at the team's training facility in Davie, Fla. Three hundred moms attended. They participated in football drills (non-contact), learned about the latest tackling techniques and received genuine NFL swag: a Moms Clinic T-shirt lettered in aqua and orange.

The NFL hosts these Moms Clinic get togethers in NFL cities around the country. They're part of a larger, quite sophisticated hearts-and-minds campaign that the league has been orchestrating for years. The message is that despite the noise from researchers like those at B.U., it's OK for little kids to play tackle football and — no small thing — fun to be a parent of a football-playing child.

These two stories collide for me in an ominous way. Considering what we know — and more importantly, what we don't — should the NFL be promoting tackle football for our children?

While the focus of the new study from B.U. is adults, the findings with regard to CTE raise troubling questions about tackle football for 10-year-olds. And 5-year-olds. (Yes, Pop Warner Football has a division for children 5, 6 and 7.)

Local kids participate in football drills at the county All Star camp on July 20 at Wanner Stadium.
Local kids participate in football drills at the county All Star camp on July 20 at Wanner Stadium. (By Troy Jefferson / Virginia Gazette)

Dr. Ann McKee, a B.U. neuropathologist who, it's safe to say, has examined the brains of more football players than anyone, seemed to be appealing directly to parents when the new study was released. Much is still unknown about CTE and its triggers, she pointed out. But, she said, potential contributing factors include the age at which children start playing football and cumulative number of hits.

In other words, the later in life kids get clobbered, the better for their brains.

"I believe everyone needs to make their own decisions, given their own personal circumstances. But I'd definitely encourage athletes to participate in sports that don't involve head contact, and if they do, to try to adopt manners of play that reduce that impact," Dr. McKee told the Los Angeles Times.

She is hardly alone — or first — in imploring parents to think twice about youth football. For a decade, Dr. Robert Cantu, Dr. McKee's colleague at B.U. and one of the world's experts on sports-related head trauma, has been calling for a ban on tackle football until age 14. (Play flag football, Dr. Cantu argues.) Parents are listening — to a point. According to a 2016 University of Massachusetts Lowell poll, 79 percent of Americans say they do not want children playing football before age 14.

Another study shows that youth tackle football should be outlawed

The NFL can do more. Sure, the league now is into flag football, a safer brand of the sport, and has thrown its marketing and intellectual-property muscle behind NFL FLAG. (Players receive an NFL team-branded jersey and an NFL FLAG football belt.) That's a first step that should be followed by others. How about more funding of long-term research focused on kids' sports and head trauma? Or a statement from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledging that there's much uncertainty about the effects of repeated head blows to kids and a commitment from the NFL that it won't endorse tackle football for children until more medical questions are answered?

Here's one more unsolicited idea for Mr. Goodell: Produce a public-service announcement that trumpets the fact that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady — maybe the sport's greatest player ever — didn't play a down of tackle football until high school.

Mark Hyman (Twitter: @Sportsparents and @GWsportsprof) is assistant teaching professor of management in the business of sports program at The George Washington University. With Dr. Robert Cantu, he is co-author of "Concussions and Our Kids: America's Leading Expert on How to Protect Young Athletes and Keep Sports Safe."

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