As final preparations are made for the Super Bowl Sunday, traditional excitement for the game is being countered by criticism about player safety.
In both Illinois and New York, for instance, legislators have proposed banning youth tackle football. Football legend Brett Favre has made headlines telling reporters he prefers his grandchildren play golf instead of football.
Typical criticism of youth football points out that given advances in our knowledge about the brain, it is dangerous to let your kids play football, and unethical to enjoy watching such a barbaric sport.
As a professor whose research is devoted to the intersection of neuroscience and law, I have often found myself at the heart of these football debates. I have testified multiple times in front of the state Legislature, and teach a seminar devoted entirely to “sports concussions and the law.”
Given this background, I often get surprised looks when I defend the value of collision sports. Some find it hard to reconcile my love of the brain with a policy stance that they think promotes brain damage. But I think you can embrace neuroscience and the NFL.
In research from my Neurolaw Lab at the University of Minnesota, we’ve found a discrepancy between the actual incidence of sports concussions and public fears. Some in the public, especially worried parents, seem to think that every player who puts on a JV football jersey is going to get a concussion.
But the evidence suggests otherwise. The available data on youth sports suggests that even in sports such as football and wrestling, the majority of youth athletes who compete will not sustain a concussion. Moreover, the majority of those youth athletes who do experience a concussion won’t have symptoms last beyond a few weeks.
This is not to say that there aren’t risks — there are, and the risks may be understated by current research tools. But the general public, as well as some in the media and legislatures, likely overestimate the risks.
To demonstrate this, we recently ran a study online with a national sample of Americans. We asked respondents to estimate how many concussions they would expect based on the following facts: a middle school youth league with 10 teams, 20 players on a team and each player participating in 20 practices and five games. In wonky researcher terms, that adds up to a full season of 5,000 “athlete exposures” — an athlete participating in a game or practice.
How many concussions do you think that middle school football league will experience in an average season?
The scientific estimate is about 1-1.5 concussions per 1,000 athlete exposures, resulting in about three to seven total concussions. But the median response in our survey of the American public was 25 concussions.
This gap between the actual and perceived risk of football is problematic because it skews the cost-benefit analysis. It makes athletes, parents and policymakers more fearful than they should be.
Focusing so intensely on inflated risks also prevents us from properly accounting for the benefits from collision sports.
Research on the benefits of football (and other similar sports) is relatively rare, and articulating those benefits may be hard to do for those who have not played. But when you speak with players, from youth through the NFL, they will talk to you about how football helped them overcome fears, gain confidence and learn to work as part of a team. For college and professional athletes, of course, there are significant economic gains. There’s even evidence that those who have played in the NFL are actually less likely to commit suicide than a control population.
Football isn’t for everyone, and it’s not free of significant injury risks. But the same could be said about bicycling, swimming and just about every other activity where we jump into the world.
Can we make collision sports safer? Absolutely, and we should do it. But amid a crisis of youth obesity, we shouldn’t take away from young men a sport that is so compelling.
We also shouldn’t feel bad for enjoying Sunday’s display of world-class athleticism, competition and teamwork.
An exciting game will inspire more young kids to move off the couch and onto the gridiron. We should fully inform these athletes of the risks, but we shouldn’t take the game away from them.
Dr. Francis X. Shen is an associate professor of law at the University of Minnesota, and a senior fellow in law and neuroscience at Harvard Law School’s Petrie-Flom Center.