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When Bob Cantu Says No Collision Sports Before Age 14, Parents Need to Listen

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As I said then, "More research is needed over a longer period of time before we will know - if we will ever know - just how dangerous football is to the human brain - particularly the developing brain of a youth, middle school or high school player. There is not now and never will be a one-size-fits-all answer. It is likely that the American obsession with football will continue for decades to come. But at the very least we ...  need to continue to provide the very best information."

Words that, in light of Dr. Cantu's new recommendation, resonate even more clearly today.

February  16, 2012 update: Dr. Cantu's recommendations aren't shared, however, by all concussion experts, most notably, Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz of the University of North Carolina.  In a 2012 article in the Charlotte News and Observer, Dr. Guskiewicz said he believed it was important for young athletes to learn how to safely handle contact at an early age and develop those skills against competition that is the same size and age.

"Bob and I don't disagree on much, but we do on this," Guskiewicz told the News-Observer.

The question is whether the safety advantage gained by learning to perform athletic skills at an early age is offset by the risk of brain trauma caused by repeated blows.

Guskiewicz believes it is much safer for young players to learn how to safely play games when they are small, rather than wait until they enter high school.

"The youth league players generally are close to the same size and are about the same age," Guskiewicz said. "If you wait until the kids are freshmen in high school, you might have a 130-pound player competing with a 300-pound player. The forces can be tremendous. I believe it is safer for the players to learn at younger ages."

Cantu said after treating many young athletes with concussions, it is essential to find ways to avoid blows to the head.

"That's where Kevin and I differ," Cantu said. "I'm treating these children and I've seen them miss school for a week, a month, a semester, even a year because of post-concussion symptoms.

"It doesn't make sense to me to be subjecting young individuals to traumatic head injury. There's no head injury that's a good one, and you can't play collision sports without accumulating head injuries. To allow children to play with no informed consent of the dangers is inexcusable. To allow children to play in collision sports with the rules as they are written should not be allowed."

Here's a video of Dr. Guskiewicz explaining his position at the NATA youth sports safety summit in Washington, D.C. in December 2011:

October 25, 2015 update:  The American Academy of Pediatrics new Policy Statement on Tackling in Youth Football contains this first-rate summary of the positions espoused by Drs. Cantu and Guskiewicz:

Some physicians have recently argued that because the brain is in a rapid period of development during youth, contact should be eliminated from football until a certain age. Others have argued, however, that eliminating contact at a young age would prevent young athletes from learning the skills required to tackle, absorb a tackle, and fall to the ground safely. Then, when contact is later introduced, athletes will be ill prepared and forced to learn these skills at an age where they are bigger, faster, stronger, more coordinated, and capable of delivering more forceful blows. Some have suggested that this might increase the risk of injuryand have argued the correct contact techniques should be taught at the earliest organized level.

Noting the absence of research showing the effect of delaying the age at which tackling is introduced to football on the risk of injury, and research going both ways on the effect of delaying the age at which body checking is introduced in hockey, the AAP decided that tha further research was needed before informed recommendations could be made.  The statement emphasized, however, that, in the event leagues did delay the introduction of tackling, increased emphasis be placed on teaching proper tackling technique, as well as the teaching of the skills necessary to evade tackles and absorb contact while being tackled (which was accompanied by the caveat: that it was "unclear" whether the neuromuscular control necessary to performing them could be adequately learned in the absence of contact beginning at an earlier age.

In addition, a brand new study, also published online today in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, reports that a season of subconcussive contact in football was not detrimental to cognitive and balance scores of 8- to 12-year-old youth football players on the Child‐SCAT3. 

Brooke de Lench is Executive Director of MomsTEAM Institute of Youth Sports Safety, Founder of MomsTEAM.com, author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins 2006), and Producer of the PBS documentary, The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer. You can follow Brooke on Twitter @BrookedeLench or email her at delench@MomsTEAM.com.