Iowa Hawkeyes legend Chuck Long has joined some of the biggest names in professional football who think boys should wait until they’re 14-years-old to play tackle football.
The movement, Flag Football Under 14, was launched by the Concussion Legacy Foundation this year as an effort to reform contact sports so that children are not exposed to repetitive brain trauma at a young age. NFL quarterback Drew Brees is on board. So is Super Bowl champ Zach Ertz.
It’s the foundation’s goal to reduce the risk of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease most commonly found in athletes.
Long, the 1985 Heisman Trophy runner-up with the Hawkeyes, told the Register he wants to make the sport safer for all participants. Part of that is playing flag football until age 14, which is what he did growing up in Wheaton, Illinois.
“I think you develop more fundamentals and you learn the nuances of the game in flag football more than you do in padded football,” Long said. “You’re working your feet and you have to learn a little bit more finesse. It gets everybody involved more, I think.
“I don’t think you need to put pads on until you’re in high school.”
But the question remains — is he right?
The answer, it seems, is not so black and white.
Children under 14 don’t have the correct body mass and development to withstand tackles and brace impact, said Geoffrey Lauer, executive director of the Brain Injury Alliance of Iowa.
So waiting is the most sensible guideline — made by leading national neurologists and concussion experts — to prevent risking longterm brain injury from football, he said.
“Fourteen is the medically agreed upon age where a majority of young men start to have those physical changes and brain maturation,” Lauer said.
Recent research from the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University found subconcussive impacts, not concussions, may be the driving force behind CTE.
Children ages 7 to 13 years old are sustaining up to 500 subconcussive head impacts per football season, Lauer said. The number increases to 1,000 as they reach the high school level.
“Each of those head hits might have been a concussion if it happened at the right angle on the right brain at the right time,” he said.
It stands to reason that waiting to play would reduce the number of head impacts by 3,500 over a child’s life. And, since CTE is caused by repeated blows to the head, “there is sufficient evidence that this type of recommendation does make sense,” Lauer said.
“We are very concerned about the reality that kids are being exposed to thousands of subconcussive hits that we never thought were an issue,” he said.