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Are Parents Who Allow Young Athletes To Play Contact or Collision Sports Guilty of Child Abuse?

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As long-time visitors to MomsTeam or readers of my blog and 2006 book, Home Team Advantage, know, I have always taken a somewhat expansive view of what constitutes child abuse in the context of sports. 

Among other things, I have long advocated for adoption by the United States of the protections against abuse contained in the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child [Update: as of December 11, 2015, the U.S. was the only country in the world that has not signed the convention] and believe that a parent or coach who knowingly allows a child to continue to play while injured, or recklessly exposes a child to an unreasonable risk of sports injury, is engaging in child abuse.

So, when I was asked in a recent radio interview, whether I viewed parents who allow their children - particularly elementary school age-children  - to participate in collision sports as committing child abuse, I had to stop for a moment to think.  

On the one hand, there appears to be a growing body of research suggesting that playing contact or collision sports for a long period of time likely has, at least for some unknown percentage of athletes, serious adverse health consequences, not just from concussions but from the cumulative effect of sub-concussive blows to the head, blows which athletes in youth football, lacrosse, and, until recently, hockey, suffer on an almost constant basis in both games and practices.  Such evidence. while far from conclusive, has raised alarm bells among some in the youth sports community and prompted at least one leading concussion expert, Dr. Robert Cantu, MomsTeam's concussion expert emeritus, to recently recommend that kids not play such sports until middle or high school, at least under current rules.

On the other hand, while I personally think Dr. Cantu's recommendation is worthy of serious consideration, I don't believe parents who allow their kids to start or continue to play collision sports before middle school are engaging in child abuse.

Here's why:

  • All sports, whether collision, contact, individual or team, involves a certain amount of risk. Risk of injury is inherent to sport, and sport cannot be made completely risk free any more than riding around on a bike or running around on a playground can be made injury-proof.1  Kids can't live in a bubble, nor should they.
  • That doesn't mean risk can't and shouldn't be minimized wherever possible.  It should.  One of my principal missions, from even before MomsTeam was launched in 2000, has been to minimize the risk of injury in youth sports through training and education of sports parents, coaches and administrators, advocating for rule changes, and by urging the use of safer equipment.
  • While there is a level of risk at which a parent could be deemed guilty of child abuse - say, for instance, by allowing their child to return to the playing field knowing that they are still experiencing concussion symptoms, and thus recklessly exposing them to the risk of a further delay in concussion recovery, long-term brain injury, or even death from second impact syndrome - unless their recklessness is really that extreme, I believe the degree of risk they are willing to have their child take on is really up to them, such that exposing them to that risk is not, in my view, child abuse.


Knowledge is power

In the end, it all comes back to education: In the ideal world, a parent's decision about whether to allow a child to start playing or continue playing collision sports before high school under current rules of play (which are evolving in the direction of safety, fortunately, as seen, for instance, in USA Hockey's ban on body checking at the Pee Wee hockey level and below, and limits on full-contact practices instituted at every level of football, from Pop Warner, to high school, college, and the NFL), will be a conscious one; a decision in which the risks of participating in a particular sport - provided it is based on the most up-to-date information about those risks and a consideration of other risk factors that might come into play for their child, such as pre-existing learning disabilities (e.g. ADHD), chronic health conditions (e.g., a history of history of multiple concussions or seizures, history of migraines), or a reckless and overly aggressive style of play - are balanced against the  benefits to the child of participating.

Ultimately, our kids have to rely on their parents to make sure they are doing everything they can to minimize injuries by knowing the risks, and by making sure that, if and when they do suffer a sports injury, such as concussion, they receive appropriate treatment. More than that, I think, we cannot expect.  

Brooke de Lench is Executive Director of MomsTEAM Youth Sports Safety Institute, Founder and Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, producer/director of the PBS documentary, The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer, and author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins)  

1. The Centers for Disease Control's study on traumatic brain injuries in youth and high school sports and recreational activities agrees.  "Risk for TBI," it says, "is inherent to physical activity and can occur during any activity at any age."   Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). Nonfatal Traumatic Brain Injuries Related to Sports and Recreation Activities Among Persons Aged ≤ 19 Years -- United States, 2001-2009; 2011; 60(39):1337-1342 (http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6039a1.htm?s_cid=mm6039a1_e&s...)(accessed October 7, 2011).  Interestingly, riding a bike and playground were number one and number three on the list of activities resulting in emergency room visits for traumatic brain injury overall (8.1% and 7.9% respectively), second and third among males under age 19 (16.5%, 7.8%), second and first among girls (11.8%, 14.2%), and number one and two for boys and girls aged 9 or younger.   

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