Ask An Expert / Sports

My son wants to play football, but we’re worried about the risk of concussions. How can we keep him safe?

Collision sports do carry risk, so get to know the safety guidelines

Michael Rosenthal, PhD

My son wants to play football, but we're worried about the risk of concussions. Is football too dangerous? How do we keep our son safe?

I get a lot of parents asking me if it’s safe for their children to play football, especially as the season starts up again. There’s no easy answer to this question. Kurt Warner made the headlines a while back when he said he didn’t want his sons playing football. On the other hand I have colleagues who certainly recognize the risks but still allow their children to play collision sports. I think it ultimately becomes an individual decision.

The simple truth is that collision sports carry a certain amount of risk: if you are playing a contact sport like football, hockey, or lacrosse you are going to get knocked around, and if you play long enough, there’s a possibility you may suffer a concussion. It is important to realize that most kids who experience concussions get completely better within a few days to a few weeks with cognitive and physical rest. For certain kids, however, symptoms may persist much longer and may require specialist intervention.

A lot of people assume the best way to protect their child is a good helmet, but I’d actually warn parents against putting all their faith in protective headgear. Remember, a concussion is the result of a traumatic blow to the body or head that causes a person’s brain to shake in his skull; for the most part, helmets don’t prevent that internal shaking. There have been some advances in helmet technology, but I don’t think there’s any real evidence yet that helmets are the solution. And there’s also a downside to relying too much on headgear since it can give a false sense of security and may make athletes play more aggressively.

I think that educating parents, coaches, and kids about concussions and being aware of — and obeying — safety guidelines are actually the smartest things we can do to protect kids who want to play collision sports. And the good news is that we are all getting better at figuring out how to minimize and mitigate the effects of the injury. Most states have new laws on the books requiring concussion education for certain school personnel and rules about removing a child from play if he is injured. For example, in New York kids must be immediately removed from play if they are believed to have sustained a concussion. Kids also can’t return until they’ve been symptom-free for 24 hours—and a licensed physician has evaluated them and given written permission to return. Also, in many states including New York all coaches, PE teachers, nurses, and athletic trainers are required to learn how to recognize concussion symptoms so that kids can get help as soon as possible. And, of course, it is essential that parents learn the warning signs, too.