A week ago, you may have heard about a “study” in the journal Pediatrics that called for the banning of high school football.
Despite what ABC and USA Today may have reported, though, the article in question was not the result of a study. It was a collection of four commentaries that were long on emotion and short on facts. Of the four, only one called for banning football; two did not and one was equivocal.
The first piece, authored by Lewis Margolis, MD, MPH, asserted that high school football should be banned because “football causes more harm to the brain than any other sport.”
By that line of reasoning, however, as soon as one sport was banned, another would take its place in the crosshairs.
Margolis argued, “high school football players have, by far, the highest risk of concussion of any sport.” That claim flew in the face of ample research showing wrestling and women’s hockey as riskier, and lacrosse and women’s soccer being close.
He also fretted over the “poorly understood longer-term risks, such as cognitive deficits or dementia.”
Those risks are better understood than Margolis would have you believe.
Four years ago, I reported on a research study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings that examined the late-life risk of neurodegeneration for high school football players. The researchers’ operating hypothesis was that “athletes playing football during the decade 1946-1956 would be more likely to develop a neurodegenerative condition later in life than non-football players.”
Much to the surprise of lead author Rodolfo Savica, MD, PhD, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic, the football players ended up being no more likely than the non-athletes to develop dementia, Parkinson’s Disease or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease).
When I spoke to him at the time, Savica cautioned that more research was needed because the game of football is so much different now from 60 years ago.
When I ran into him at a concussion conference in Chicago this summer, he told me such research was forthcoming. Yesterday, he and his colleagues published it, again in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
This time they looked at those who played football at the two high schools in Rochester, Minnesota, between 1956 and 1970 and compared them to those playing other sports (basketball, swimming, and wrestling). “This was a time when the rules, the regulations, and physical ability of the football players were evolving to mirror more closely those of the present era,” wrote the authors.
Once again, they looked for cases of ALS, Parkinson’s Disease, and dementia. However, they added mild cognitive impairment to their search. And once again, the incidence of those conditions was no different from one group to the other. This was despite the fact that Savica and his colleagues identified a significantly higher rate of head trauma among the football players.
“Our studies are reassuring,” said Savica, in reference to high school football players, their parents, and coaches. Still, he cautioned that today’s game is different from 45 years ago.
Furthermore, for those playing beyond high school, Savica said, “The studies on CTE are irrefutable.”
To those calling for a ban of high school football, Savica responded, “I don’t think, personally, that banning a sport is the answer. In general, I advocate rules, good rules that make people be safe.”