Tackle football can wait for your child’s health’s sake

There was something West Virginia University football coach Dana Holgorsen said during his Wednesday press conference that plenty of people have probably heard before, just not from a person in Holgorsen’s occupation.

Someone asked him about his son, Logan, a high school quarterback who recently transferred from Morgantown High to St. Francis Academy in Baltimore. Holgorsen had mentioned that Logan hadn’t started playing football until he was a freshman.

“I don’t think football needs to be played until you’re in ninth grade,” Holgorsen said. “That’s my personal opinion with kids growing up.”

A couple of things to take from that. First, it’s pretty impressive that Logan already has scholarship offers from North Texas and Bowling Green after such a short time playing the sport. Second, it’s a little surprising that the head coach of a major Football Bowl Subdivision program would make that statement, when many of the players on his roster likely have been playing since grade school.

“There are a number of different reasons why,” Holgorsen added, “but this probably isn’t the time and place for that.”

I’ll disagree with him there, because now is the perfect time to talk about it. And I agree with his opinion, though I’ll add a small caveat. Children don’t need to start playing tackle football until the ninth grade.

If groups want to create youth flag football leagues, I’m all for it. Many of the necessary fundamentals of football — proper conditioning, mechanics, route running, pass coverage — can be taught without crashing kids into each other. Now, I’m sure I’ll be labeled “soft” for this opinion by some, who will say that blocking and tackling at a young age builds toughness and character. But studies show they build up some other undesirable things.

A study published in a 2015 issue of “Neurology” stated that football players between ages 9 and 12 take between 240 and 585 head hits per season, and that those hits come at a force similar to those taken by high school and college players.

And if those football players’ journeys go through college and into the NFL, there are other risks. A study published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association analyzed the brains of 202 football players whose brains were donated for research. Of those 202, 177 showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease linked to the repeated blows athletes take to the head. That included 110 of 111 former NFL players and 48 out of 53 former college players.

The disease doesn’t just magically appear during the college or pro years. It comes from a buildup of hits over time, and not just the ones that cause obvious concussions. Studies show that subconcussive hits, “getting your bell rung,” can lead to problems. And those hits can start in grade school, if a kid puts on a helmet that young

The sport of football isn’t going away. It’s worth billions of dollars at the college and pro levels and no one is going to shut off that faucet any time soon. But wouldn’t it be worth it to dial back on those blows when players are younger, so they might avoid possibly thousands of hits to the head? The research is clear as to what can happen. To stick one’s head in the sand and ignore it is asinine.

Now, Holgorsen didn’t delve into the reasons for his opinion. His may differ from mine. But with the broader point, he’s dead on. Children can live without going full pads and full contact when they’re still in elementary school. And this isn’t just some unathletic sports writer sitting behind a computer saying that. It’s a major college football coach.

Hopefully, with his voice, people may start to listen.

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