I didn't play football growing up. Never got to date a cheerleader. But, as a consolation prize, I have had an ambulatory adulthood.
I know guys who did play and aren't as lucky, and I don't want my kids to be like these guys.
Matt, for example, wore his football jacket to our 25th high school reunion for nostalgia's sake. Several months later I ran into him at a water park, one with high-rise water slides. I'd been climbing stairs with my kids all day to hit the slides with them, but Matt hadn't. His knees were trashed from football and rugby; multiple surgeries hadn't fixed them. That's a hefty price to pay for sports most kids stop playing after high school.
There's also the real risk of brain damage. This year, in an interview with The New Republic, even President Barack Obama stated his wariness to let a son play football.
I'm not wary, I'm adamant. I'm a big fan of physical activity, but no kid of mine gets to play football, hockey or any other sport where the intent is to hit someone else as hard as they can.
But am I being one of those overcautious helicopter parents surrounding his kids with bubble wrap? Let's hit the books.
I began with a 2002 study of 1,659 children ages 7 to 13 by University of Pittsburgh researchers, published in the journal Pediatrics. They compared two seasons of soccer, football, baseball and softball, and found that the injury rates were similar across all four sports. But when you look at serious injuries (fracture, dislocation, concussion), the results skew.
For baseball, 3 percent of injuries were serious, for soccer it was only 1 percent, yet for football 14 percent were serious.
Another study, conducted in 2009 by Ohio State University researchers and published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, also pointed the finger at football for serious injury. The study, which looked at data for nine sports from 100 high schools during a two-year period, found that football resulted in 0.69 severe injuries per 1,000 athletes. Wrestling was second at 0.52 per 1,000.
The nine sports the study tracked yield an estimated half-million severe injuries for high school students each year in the U.S., with knees bearing the brunt of punishment. But it's not just the neck down I'm worried about. After all, surgeons can do wonders with repairing knees, but I have yet to hear of a successful brain reconstruction.
The American Medical Society for Sports Medicine published a position paper this year in the British Journal of Sports Medicine about concussion in sport. The statement said there are close to 4 million concussions in the U.S. each year from both competitive and recreational sports, but an estimated half of those concussions go unreported.
That last part is bad, because the statement says, "a second blow before the brain has recovered results in worsening metabolic changes within the cell." The authors then noted a concussed brain is "less responsive to usual neural activation" and that there is a fear of "prolonged dysfunction."
Oh, and football topped the list again for concussions, with hockey and rugby taking second and third place.
But am I being too paranoid about the risks? My brother-in-law was the high school quarterback, played rugby in college and seems to have emerged unscathed. I asked Dr. Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California at Los Angeles if he thought I was being overprotective.
"It's a decision that I can respect and understand," he said. Small has seen the outcome of repeated concussions in his practice and was lead author on a study just published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry that scanned the brains of retired NFL players for signs of neurodegeneration. He told me that NFL players have four times the risk of dying from Alzheimer's than the general population.
"There are definitely risks to the brain with contact sports," Small told me. "Every time you get tackled, your brain moves against your skull. Even if you don't feel like your brain got rattled, it still may have, and this creates cumulative damage."
And younger people may be at greater risk. "Empathy and frontal lobe skills are developing, and we're not sure how these contact sports can affect (them)," Small said.
Dr. Teri McCambridge, a sports medicine pediatrician in Baltimore, also noted that "some kids are more susceptible to the lingering effects of concussions." Apparently children with ADHD, chronic headaches and learning disabilities have more trouble recovering from concussions.