Would I let my kids play football?

As a neuroscientist researching the hot topic of concussion in sport, I am used to being asked a lot of questions.

One of the most common but difficult questions I get asked is whether I would let my kids play football. Interestingly, for such a big question people want a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Just like concussion isn’t straight forward (it’s more than just a knock to the head), the answer is complex.

While my initial answer is ‘no’ I wouldn’t let my kids play football, that would only be in its current form. If Australian football, rugby and soccer were to modify their sports for children, then the answer would be ‘yes’.

We know that brain development takes a long time; a bit over two decades in fact. Developing brains are susceptible to a range of environmental factors, both positive and negative. This is the reason why we don’t let our children smoke, or even breathe secondary smoke, or drink. But we encourage physical activity which is good for developing brains.

Children thrive on games, and there are many benefits – not just physical but also mental and emotional.

However, we know that impacts to the brain can have long lasting consequences. So why do we seem to accept children playing sports where head trauma and concussions are a risk?

Many kids’ sports have modifications in place to reduce the risk of injury. For example, a ‘pitch count’ for junior baseball to protect the shoulders of players, or in tennis, modified equipment suitable for the age, size and skill levels.

In football codes here in Australia, I was pleased to hear of a new lightweight ball for kids playing soccer – but that doesn’t go far enough.

In the UK, heading of the soccer ball has now been banned in training sessions for children up to the age of 12. In some US states, full contact training for American football is now limited – including in college football.

If we made modifications to reduce the risk of head trauma and concussions in children playing Australian football, rugby and soccer, I would be glad to change my answer from a ‘no’ to a ‘yes’.

This article originally appeared in Australian Community Media.