NFL player’s injury reignites debate among parents about youth sports

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

No one can downplay the popularity of football in Georgia this week as the University of Georgia gears up for another run at the national title. The Georgia General Assembly has planned its opening day agenda around the Bulldogs’ championship contest Monday night in Los Angeles with Texas Christian University.

While parents may admire the gridiron magic of UGA quarterback Stetson Bennett and his indefatigable teammates, do they want their children to grow up to play football?

More parents will likely question the wisdom of allowing their children to play after Monday’s terrifying on-camera collapse of Buffalo safety Damar Hamlin during a Cincinnati Bengals-Buffalo Bills game. Now in critical condition, Hamlin went into cardiac arrest after a hit to the chest.

Beth McClure of Woodstock loves watching football and pointed to the camaraderie and good sportsmanship athletes can develop playing it. But she was anxious each time her son, Harrison, played quarterback for the Walker School in Marietta. Her heart dropped when she saw Hamlin’s injury live on television Monday. She is relieved now that her 19-year-old son, who graduated last year and is now studying at Kennesaw State University, is not playing football.

”I’m glad it’s over,” said McClure, a pharmacist. “It makes you rethink wanting your kids to play.”

“We have a pretty athletic child and at the request of previous NFL players and our fears of concussions and CTE we refused to enroll him in football,” said Gwinnett parent Kim Claros. “He’s a high schooler now and still asks to play. We are still opposed and events such as this consistently validate our decision.”

“Tackle football has been off the table for us,” said Decatur parent Tyler Waidner Smith. Her son once expressed some interest, but Smith and her husband talked to him about the risks of brain injuries.

“Since then, he has been on board,” said Smith, nothing that her son and his middle school classmates prefer lacrosse, soccer, baseball or basketball. “I think kids here feel football is great to watch and it’s great to go to games and cheer their team, but they don’t want to play,” she said.

There has been a drop in the number of high school boys playing the game in the last decade. Nationwide, 973,792 boys played high school football in the 2021-22 school year, more than double the 436,465 on soccer teams. However, 10 years earlier 1,095,993 boys played football. Two factors may explain that dip — parent fears over their children suffering brain injuries and school concerns over liability for those injuries. While high school football rosters are falling, National Federation of State High School Associations data show the Friday night lights still shine brightly in Georgia where annual participation has held steady at about 32,000 players.

Football has come under fire from the research linking the sport to traumatic brain injuries that can leave lasting and devastating effects. There is also a risk of cardiac arrest. In 2021, four high school players died, three during games and one in practice from traumatic brain injuries, according to the Annual Survey of Football Injury Research. The survey documented 13 other football deaths that year — 11 in high school — related to conditioning and running. Those deaths were largely the result of sudden cardiac arrest and heat stroke.

One of the greatest worries is chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated blows to the head that can only be confirmed after death. CTE has been found in the brains of more than 315 former NFL players, according to Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center. CTE has also been associated with other high contact sports including boxing, soccer and hockey.

“My husband is 39 and was incredibly talented and played at a highly competitive level of hockey from the age of 13-19. He’s also been diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s and the likely root cause is due to repeated concussions and brain trauma,” said Georgia parent Ashley. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has agreed with Ashley’s request not to use her last name, who is concerned about sharing information about her husband’s health.)

His last injury — and his last time playing — was in 2011. It occurred in a men’s league play when someone crosschecked him at the base of his skull. “His tremors and coordination issues began shortly after that. He likely also has some level of CTE, but we won’t know that until he passes for sure. We have two small children and we are not allowing them to play any contact sport due to these concerns. It’s just not worth it. At all,” she said.

A former teacher and track coach in Fayette County now living in California, Renee Lucas Haugen said all sports carry risk. “I have seen a serious head injury while pole vaulting. I saw a 16-year-old’s femur break in half while running a 2-mile race in track and field. There is risk in everything, and hidden susceptibility in some athletes in all sports,” she said.

While heartbreaking, Hamlin’s devastating injury is rare, Haugen said. “Hopefully, it will cause everyone to examine safety procedures. But I don’t think anything will or should be canceled. If football didn’t exist, would he be playing rugby, or basketball, or baseball, or soccer, or running track?”

“As a teacher, I see the number of concussions climb year after year,” said metro Atlanta teacher Michael McIntyre. “Kids sit in my classroom for weeks under concussion protocol, and I am told to ‘minimize their cognitive load.’ More and more, I have come to consider youth football and high school football as a horrible example of socially sanctioned child abuse -- and I played youth football.”