Iowa offers plenty of options for children wanting to play tackle football – some starting as early as first grade. But what the state – and the nation – lacks is information on how often young people are affected by football-related injuries, like concussions.
“We don’t really know what the risks are,” said Andrew Peterson, a clinical associate professor with University of Iowa Sports Medicine. “There are concerns in general about youth football, but not a lot of data to back up or refute those concerns.”
Peterson and colleague Kyle Smoot, also a practitioner with UI Sports Medicine, are hoping to change that with a study launched this fall looking at injury incident rates among young footballers. The goal, as the topic continues to generate new research and headlines nationwide, is to better inform parent, coach and player decisions.
At Regina Catholic Education Center in Iowa City, for example, coaches swapped third- and fourth-grade tackle football with flag football this year and saw participation numbers rise.
The UI study hopes to confirm whether those types of changes are necessary.
Research began by collecting injury information from two leagues – RedZone Football Academy in Iowa City and a YSS league in Muscatine – for the seasons that started in August and ended a week ago. The data includes both flag and tackle football teams, but no identifying information.
It simply tallies the number of kids at each practice and game, the number of injuries and what is known about the injuries – how and where they occur and whether any play time is missed.
Children in the leagues being studied range in age from third through sixth grades. Peterson said research shows more youths in that age range are playing tackle football – of the 4.2 million football players nationwide, half are in youth football, he said.
Meanwhile, Peterson said, football participation at the high school level is dropping, partly because of cost and time. But also due to parental concerns over concussions, he said.
The UI researchers plan to analyze their data in the coming months before collecting more next fall – including injury totals for Metro Youth Football in Cedar Rapids. Within a year or two, Peterson said, they hope to have enough preliminary data to generate a hypothesis and inform future research.
“There is some information out there about the injury risks in youth tackle football but not much for flag football,” he said. “And there is nothing comparing the two leagues.”
The UI study won’t look at the long- and short-term health effects of concussions on young people. Some of the many other studies underway around this topic nationwide will look at that, Peterson said.
The Institute of Medicine and National Research Council, for example, this week released a report on its review of sports-related concussions among youth. It pulled some conclusions and made some recommendations but similarly found that little is known about the extent of concussions in kids, their long-term consequences and how to diagnose, manage and prevent them.
The national study examined concussions in a variety of sports for athletes ages 5 to 21 and learned that concussion rates are higher among high school athletes than college athletes in some sports – football, men’s lacrosse and soccer, and baseball.
Rates are highest in football, hockey, lacrosse, wrestling, soccer and women’s basketball, according to the study. And rates appear to be higher in young people with a history of concussions and among females.
According to that report, young athletes typically recover from a concussion within two weeks, but 10 to 20 percent of cases see symptoms persist longer. Athletes who return to play before fully healing might be at increased risk of prolonging recovery or suffering a more serious subsequent brain injury, according to the report.
Looking at data on the effects of concussions, some showed memory and processing impairments, according to the report. Surveys of retired professional athletes with a history of concussions shows increased risk for depressing – of more than 2,500 retired professional football players, about 11 percent reported a prior or current clinical depression diagnosis, the report indicated.
Although little data for young athletes is available, the report indicated that the number of people age 19 and under treated in emergency rooms for concussions and other non-fatal sports-related brain injuries increased from 150,000 in 2001 to 250,000 in 2009.
‘Gone full circle’
At Regina Catholic Education Center – an elementary, junior and senior high school in Iowa City – coach Marv Cook said the football program has “gone full circle.”
About 12 years ago, he said, the school switched from flag football to tackle football at the fifth- and sixth-grade levels. Three years ago it went to tackle football at the third- and fourth-grade levels.
During that time, Cook said, participation at the high school level began to drop. It went from 90 students seven years ago, to 80 to 65.
“I think a lot of that had to do with the experience they had when they were young,” he said.
So this fall, the school went back to flag football for the third- and fourth-graders, and Cook said participation in that group rose from 24 to 34.
“We are still teaching them the fundamentals of the game, but we’re minimizing the exposure,” Cook said.
The coaching staff now is re-evaluating its fifth- and sixth-grade tackle football program and considering switching back to flag football, according to Cook.
“I think it would be good to have a couple of years where they are tacking a three-foot dummy,” he said. “You would learn good habits and not worry about being plowed over.”
Cook said he thinks all the concussion research is a good thing in that it better informs coaching practices and player decisions.
“The awareness now is getting to where it needs to be,” he said. “The more knowledge we have, the better off we’ll be going forward.”