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Proof That Playing Football Isn't Safe for Kids

Photograph by Twenty20

Like many children, my 8-year-old son loves watching football. However, whether he likes it or not, that fascination will have mom-imposed limits. I don't ever want him to actually play the game. Anyone who has seen the movie "Concussion," the Will Smith drama about NFL players and traumatic brain injuries, can probably relate. I worry that football is far too dangerous for a kid, and now there is a study by Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center to back up those fears.

According to the groundbreaking research, concussions are not the only dangers young players face. Doctors found that even hits and tumbles can cause changes in a child's brain. The study tracked 25 players between the ages of 8 and 13 on a team in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The kids were given helmets with special sensors that measured the frequency and severity of their blows. Pre-season and post-season MRIs revealed the small changes in white matter, which is the tissue that connects gray matter.

It's not clear whether those changes are permanent, but experts say they are happening at a critical time in kids' development.

"This is important, particularly for children, because their brains are undergoing such rapid change, particularly in the age category from maybe 9 to 18. And we just don't know a lot of about it," said Dr. Chris Whitlow, one of the lead researchers.

Despite their age, these kids were hitting each other pretty hard. If one season impacted their brains, what happens over several years? Experts say we may not know the affects for many more years. It's a frightening thought. Though, even parents armed with this knowledge say it will be difficult to forbid their sons from playing.

"They bring the football to church. They bring the football to track practice," Kindra Ritzle-Worthy, whose two sons play, told Today. "Actually, my oldest—I found out he was sleeping with the football."

Former Minnesota Viking Greg DeLong, whose son Jake also participated in the study, is torn. He made him take a two-year break from football because of headaches but then allowed him to play again. But as a former NFL player, DeLong has seen lives ruined by the concussion-induced brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

"If there's a change in our son's scan at the end of this season, we're probably gonna pull him," he said. "It's just not worth it."

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