As sign-ups for youth football get underway this spring, a new study reveals that Americans may love their football, but half now believe that kids should not play the tackle version of the game.
The researchers found that of nearly 4,000 U.S. adults surveyed, only 45% agreed that tackle football is an "appropriate sport for kids to play." Half disagreed, while the remaining 5% were unsure.
The survey did not dig into the reasons behind those opinions. But it's likely that safety concerns were a big factor, said researcher Mariah Warner, a doctoral student in sociology at Ohio State University, in Columbus.
The biggest worry with football, she noted, is concussion - and whether repeat knocks to the head could put young players at risk of long-term problems with memory or other brain functions.
Concerns have been heightened in recent years, partly because of high-profile cases of long-term brain injury among former NFL players. Players such as Frank Gifford and Junior Seau were found, after their deaths, to have signs of a degenerative brain condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
CTE is a form of brain degeneration believed to be caused by repeated head trauma. It has been found not only in former pro football players, but also in athletes who played other contact sports, like hockey and boxing.
When it comes to youth sports, the potential long-term effects of concussion are unclear, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
The AAP is one of many medical and sports-related groups that have come out with strategies for making football safer for kids. They include bans on head-first tackling and certain "high-risk" drills, and having athletic trainers present at practices and games, to help ensure players with potential concussions are taken off the field.
Some other possible fixes - including a ban on tackling before age 14 - remain controversial.
With that as the backdrop, Warner and her colleague Chris Knoester wanted to get a sense of public opinion.
They turned to data from the National Sports and Society Survey, which sought Americans' views on a range of sports-related topics. One question asked them to rate the degree to which they agreed or disagreed with the statement, "Tackle football is an appropriate sport for kids to play."
It turned out that, as with so many things, Americans were split down the middle.
And there were various demographics that separated the two camps, Warner said. Not surprisingly, heterosexual men voiced more support for kids' tackle football, versus women and people who identified as gay or bisexual.
Much of those differences were explained by personal experiences, as heterosexual men had often played football as kids. But broader ideologies came into play, too: Self-described conservatives, for example, were more likely to support youth tackle football.
Meanwhile, lower-income and Black Americans took a more favorable view than higher-income and white survey respondents.
Warner said that might reflect the fact that those families have fewer options as far as their kids' activities go. Plus, they may see football as a way to gain scholarships to college.
"People's beliefs and opinions on this are complex," Warner said. And that, she added, may be why it's so hard to find agreement on proposals like tackle bans.
The findings were published online March 26 in the journal Social Currents.
So, whose side is "right?" That's complicated, too.
It's true that relative to many other sports kids play, tackle football has a higher rate of concussion, said Thayne Munce, a sports scientist with Sanford Health, in Sioux Falls, S.D., and a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine.
But he also said people's opinions may be overly influenced by media attention on CTE among former NFL players - whose years of hard hits are very different from the experience of kids playing youth football.
Plus, Munce said, today's youth football is much different from years ago.
"I think what's been left out of the public discourse is how the game is moving in the right direction," he said.
In a recent study, his team found signs that concussion awareness and new safety recommendations are making a difference. They followed one youth football team over the course of eight seasons, with the help of helmet-mounted impact monitors. During that time, kids' head impacts - which can lead to concussion - dropped by 79%.
What's the absolute concussion risk to kids?
At the high school level, boys' tackle football carries the highest concussion rate, according to a 2018 AAP report. The rate is roughly 0.5 to 0.9 concussions for every 1,000 games and practices. (Next on the list was girls' soccer, with a rate of 0.3 to 0.7 per 1,000.)
Figures from youth football are harder to gather, Munce said. Perhaps harder still for parents, he noted, is balancing injury risk against the many benefits kids get from playing team sports.
Limiting younger players to flag football may seem like a no-brainer: All the benefits with far fewer head impacts.
But, Munce said, some argue the delay in teaching proper tackling techniques could backfire: Bigger, harder-hitting high school athletes might end up with more concussions.
"The answer is, we just don't know," Munce said.
Some also worry such delays would diminish players' overall skills, Warner said.
"But," she noted, "Tom Brady didn't play tackle football until he was 14."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on concussion in youth sports.
SOURCES: Mariah Warner, doctoral student, sociology, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio; Thayne Munce, PhD, Sanford Health, Sioux Falls, S.D., and fellow, American College of Sports Medicine, Indianapolis; Social Currents, March 26, 2022, online