Get Your Head in the Game! Is it Worth the Risk?

By Samantha Milewicz

Is the risk worth the possible success? This is a constant question when it comes to one’s daily life, but it especially relates to the question of  “Should parents allow their children to play football?” Football, arguably the most popular sport in America, has been around for over 100 years, but with new medical discoveries concerning the effect of football on cognitive brain functions, allowing children to play the sport has become a controversial topic of discussion. 

Football is seen as an aggressive sport in which a player takes many blows to the body, especially to the head. Through the ages of 18-25, the brain is still developing, and these repetitive hits seen in football can lead to irreversible brain damage, even if there are no symptoms or concussions reported. This brain damage is known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is defined as a neurodegenerative disease caused by recurrent injury to the head. CTE can lead to depression, loss of intelligence, dementia, and many other devastating symptoms. A study published in July of 2017 by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 21 percent of high school football players suffer from CTE.

Additionally, CTE is not the only consequence that may result from playing football. The Radiological Society of North America, which studies changes in the brain in youth and high school football players, conducted the following study. They equipped players with sensors that tracked changes in the brain. They concluded that “There is a significant decrease in gray matter pruning in the frontal default mode network, which is involved in higher cognitive functions, such as the planning of controlling social behaviors.” Pruning is essential for brain development, as it allows the brain to remove the synapses no longer needed, allowing the brain to become more efficient with aging. 

Despite the possible injuries that may result from football, there are many positive aspects of the sport. When asked “What has football given you that nothing else has?,” Nic Picca, senior and captain of the Byram Hills High School Varsity Football team, responded, “Football has given me character. In order to be successful, there must be discipline, dedication, the knowledge of how to respond to failure, and most importantly how to love someone like family.” Although there are many ways to learn these lessons, Picca felt football was the way he truly discovered these important aspects of his identity and personality. He further explained that “Football has provided me a way to not only be healthy but learn how to become ‘coachable.’ For example, having the ability to take criticism and learn from it.” 

Freshman Sean Siegel, who is also on the Byram Hills Varsity Football team, says that from football, he has “learned to use life skills such as strategizing and working with others to become successful. Football is not only about becoming a better player but also helping one grow as a person and build relationships with others.” To Sean, football is not just about being the best but also forming the close bonds he has with his teammates. He takes away lessons from football and applies them to his life outside the sport, whether that be with his family, friends, or even academics.

Furthermore, there are many ways to ensure that football is a safe sport. When I asked Mr. Naughton, who is both a parent of a football player and a football coach himself, “Are you ever nervous for the injuries that football can cause?,” he responded, “Well I guess you will always be nervous for your child; however, if they are being taught properly, football can be a safe sport.” When it comes down to safety, a parent will always want what is best for their child, but with the proper support and education, football can be a rare opportunity to learn skills necessary for life. Additionally, at Byram Hills, all athletes are enrolled in ImPACT concussion testing. This system tests normal brain functions such as memory and reading beforehand, and if an injury to the head has resulted, the student will take the test again to see if there are any changes in the brain’s function.

Football can be a rewarding experience as well as a dangerous one. While there are risks, risks come with every sport, there are undeniable opportunities that can only be seized through football. But, at the end of the day, whether your child should play football or not, well, that is for you to decide.