The Myth of Dangerous Football

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Ron BoggsDuring the week of the 2013 Super Bowl, CBS reporter, Scott Pelley, asked President Barack Obama, “If you had a son, would you let him play football?”

President Obama responded, “I’d have to think about it.” The president elaborated his concerns about the safety and well-being of young people, college and pro football players that mirrored a recent media narrative about football safety.

The president’s well-meaning comments, and the media narrative about football safety, conflicted with my personal experiences as a football player, coach and Pop Warner league commissioner.

As a high school and college football player, my injury experience was limited to skin scrapes, a broken pinkie finger and two sprained ankles. I never missed a game or practice in five seasons of high school and college football.    

As a Pop Warner coach for eight seasons, I didn’t experience a player missing a game because of injury. While bumps and bruises among the 8-13 year-olds I coached were common, not a single kid I coached required surgery or hospitalization from a football injury.

Factual data compiled in scientific studies has been scarce in media reports. None of the broadcast and print reports on football injuries I observed cited data that examined expert research on injury and participation. 

As the number of media reports on football injuries increased, I felt the media was trying to tug on my emotions without providing me factual information. The lack of credible data put out by the media sent me looking for medical research on football injuries.

Several studies provided deeper insight. In a study of youth football injuries compiled by the Mayo Clinic, of Rochester, Minnesota, Dr. Michael J. Stuart, M.D., a Mayo Clinic orthopedic surgeon said, "Our analysis showed that youth football injuries are uncommon."

Dr. Stuart and his colleagues studied 915 players aged 9-13 years. The Mayo Clinic study injury incidence rate ranged from nine injuries for every 100,000 player plays for fourth graders to 33 injuries per 100,000 player plays for eighth graders.

The most common injury was a contusion. Only four injuries were severe enough to prevent players from returning to play in games following their injuries. None of the injuries required hospitalization or surgery.

Pop Warner Football communicated an injury study that reflected injury results similar to the Mayo Clinic study. The Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma report studied the injury experience of 5,128 boys 8-15 years of age in 71 Pop Warner leagues in New York.

No catastrophic injuries occurred during the Pop Warner study. The study showed that 1.33 injuries occurred per team during the season that required physician treatment. None of the injuries reported produced permanent disability in approximately 620,000 hours of football participation.

An annual study produced at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill shows that high school and college-level catastrophic football injuries and deaths have dropped significantly for 35 years. New coaching techniques have helped reduce the number of deaths and catastrophic injuries. 

Heat acclimation, however, poses a greater risk each year to football players. In 2010, the last year of the UNC study, the number of heat/heart deaths was reported as 11. Nine of these deaths were in high school football and two were in college football. No heat/heart deaths were reported for youth football in 2010.

The UNC study also showed that football contact injuries generated 2 deaths and 10 catastrophic injuries among more than 6 million estimated players in 2010.

The physical, mental and social benefits afforded football players are significant.  Football builds physical strength, stamina and fitness in players that counters the obesity epidemic that seems to have taken hold.

Football coaches teach players to set goals, generate desire to succeed, develop determination, learn coping skills and practice integrity. Cooperation, teamwork, and friendships are integral part of the football social experience.

From my personal experiences as a football player, youth coach and Pop Warner league commissioner, I believe the recent media narrative urges youth inactivity that leads to serious long-term health risks like obesity. 

Credible research shows that youth football participation risks are similar to the risks of other recreational activities, and much less than the alternative of every-increasing youth obesity.

Ron Boggs owns 30 years of experience as a coach, game official, league leader and program founder in youth sports. He operated Grand Slam USA franchises in Atlanta that trained 21 former youth athletes to achieve their dream of playing Major League Baseball.