Under the Dome

‘I don’t know that we need football as a thing.’ Families flee America’s favorite sport

Like many fathers, U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson carried professional sports dreams for his son.

“Before he was born, my wife said he was never playing football. I said he’s definitely playing football. When he’s in the NFL, he’s going to buy me a house,” said Hudson, a third-term Republican from Concord, N.C.

Lane Hudson is now 2. His dad is already reconsidering the sport. Armed with research about the potential damage football and repeated hits can do to young developing brains, Hudson is looking at America’s most popular sport in different ways.

“I’ve changed my opinion about contact. I still want my son to play football, but I’ve changed my opinion about contact (before 14),” Hudson said.

Participation numbers indicate Hudson is not alone in questioning the health effects of football, which attracts the national spotlight this week in the lead-up to the Super Bowl.

The number of boys playing high school football dropped by more than 48,000 between 2009 and 2016, the last year for which data is available from the National Federation of State High School Associations. In North Carolina, participation fell by more than 6,000, or more than 17 percent – and that’s despite a growing population.

Participation nationally among kids ages 6-12 has fallen by nearly 30 percent between 2008 and 2016, according to data from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.

“I’m hesitant to have my son play tackle. I don’t know that I would feel comfortable if he approached us,” said Jennifer Brown Lerner, a member of The Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development. Her 8-year-old son plays flag football. “It would be a real serious conversation. Why? Let’s look at what the available information is and let’s figure out the best decision for you.”

Brown Lerner made her comments during the first of two panels at The Aspen Institute’s “Future of Football: Reimagining the Game’s Pipeline” event in Washington last week. The event included, among others, former NFL players Domonique Foxworth and Chris Borland; Dartmouth football coach Buddy Teevens; Dr. Robert Cantu, the co-founder of the CTE Center at Boston University; and Scott Hallenbeck, the executive director of USA Football.

The premise of the conversation was replacing tackle football with flag football for pre-high school players. Lawmakers in Illinois and New York have introduced legislation to ban tackle football for pre-teens. No one has brought forth a similar bill in North Carolina. Dozens of NFL stars past and present, including New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, did not play tackle football until high school.

Cantu favors banning tackling for kids – as well as removing heading in youth soccer and checking in youth hockey – because of the amount of brain development taking place in children, which affects intelligence and emotional makeup. A recent Boston University study of 214 former football players found that playing tackle football before age 12 led to increased risk of depression and increased problems with behavioral regulation and executive function, which among other things helps people pay attention and multitask.

“If you injure a brain at that early age, it can have later life potential consequences,” said Cantu, a senior adviser to the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee.

Nine young football players sustained a combined 2,125 head impacts during practice drills over the course of a football season, according to a study that Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center published last year in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Pediatrics.

A 2011 state law requires North Carolina public high schools and middle schools to remove athletes from participation if a concussion is suspected and keep them out until they are cleared by a medical professional.

Foxworth, a former president of the NFL Players’ Association, and Borland, who retired after a standout rookie season with the San Francisco 49ers because of concerns about the long-term consequences of playing football, expressed extreme concern about the game. Foxworth said he would not let his son play football.

“I’m not in favor of abolishing football and don’t want to come across as radical, but I don’t know that we need football as a thing,” said Foxworth, now an ESPN writer and radio host.

Said Borland: “Our primary objective is to get children through childhoods without any cognitive deficits. ... Compromising the organ that would constitute that development is silly.”

Hallenbeck said USA Football is trying to give kids – and parents – multiple entry points into football, including flag football and “rookie tackle,” likening it to youth baseball’s progression from T-ball to coach pitch to kids’ pitch. Flag football participation has grown in recent years. USA Football has more than 400,000 participants, boys and girls, in its NFL Flag leagues.

“I don’t think tackle football is going away,” Hallenbeck said. “We need to continue to focus on improving the sport.”

Concussion awareness is at an all-time high. Will Smith starred in “Concussion,” a 2015 movie that chronicles the discovery of CTE – chronic traumatic encephalopathy – in former NFL players’ brains. All levels of football have tried to address hits to the head.

Foxworth, as president of the NFL Players’ Association, led negotiations with the NFL to limit the amount of contact allowed in practices. The North Carolina High School Activities Association limits teams to 60 minutes of “live action contact” — defined as contact at game speed where players execute full tackles — per group per week during the regular season. The association also places limits on contact at the beginning of the season and during two-a-day practices.

Teevens’ Dartmouth teams do not hit each other at practice. The team practices tackling against robotic dummies and other inanimate objects.

“We might be able to change the game for the better,” said Teevens, who banned tackling in practice in 2010. His teams are 52-28 since after going 9-41 in the previous five seasons.

Taking its cue from Teevens, the Ivy League has outlawed tackling at practices across the league.

Congress, too, has become interested in concussions. There are several bills pending, including one that would require states to develop concussion safety and management plans for student-athletes.

Hudson, the North Carolina representative, is co-chairman of the Pediatric Trauma Caucus, along with Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a North Carolina Democrat. They have been working to find a way to increase the number of trauma centers nationwide capable of dealing with severe pediatric traumas so that children, no matter where they live, can be treated within a hour of suffering an injury. Hudson said it’s up to others, including parents, coaches, leagues and colleges, to solve football’s issues.

“The awareness to the public has increased. It’s important football deals with this and addresses it,” said Hudson, who visited the Carolina Panthers’ facilities in September for a close-up look at the NFL team’s medical facilities and how it is combating concussions. “You can have a quality game without having as much contact as we have now.”

Brian Murphy: 202-383-6089, @MurphinDC