In an interview with LA84 Foundation’s SportsLetter, Dr. Robert Cantu recommends that parents concerned about the dangers of concussion hold their children out of tackle football until they reach high school age.
Cantu, the chief of neurosurgery and director of the Service of Sports Medicine at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Mass., told SportsLetter that starting “your kid [in tackle football] at the earliest possible age” in youth football does not ensure college-level athletic success. Citing the example of New England Patriot quarterback Tom Brady, who did not play tackle until high school, Cantu noted, “It hasn’t seemed to have hurt his career too much.”
Tackle football before the age of 14 is not the only sport that Dr. Cantu considers dangerous. He also opposes body checking in youth hockey and heading the ball in youth soccer.
“Youngsters have big heads and weak necks,” he said, “and that bobblehead-doll setup puts them at much greater risk for concussion. That’s especially true through ages 5 to 8.”
“I’m a strong supporter of youth sports,” explained Cantu, “but no head trauma is good head trauma. You cannot condition the brain to taking blows. If you subject the brain to enough head trauma, permanent brain damage may happen…the earlier we start accumulating trauma, the more likely we are to have more of it by the time we get to be an adult.”
While acknowledging that improvements in football helmet technology have dramatically reduced fractured skulls and inter-cranial bleeding, Cantu warns that helmets do little to protect against concussions: “That’s because the most injurious acceleration the brain can get is a rotational one, where the head is spun violently. The helmets don’t do very much at all about attenuating those forces.”
Cantu expressed “100 percent” support for the “helmet free” tackling technique developed by Bobby Hosea’s Train ‘Em Up Academy and taught by USA Football, but added that he still advises against children tackling.
Recent developments offer hope, according to Cantu. More than 30 states have passed laws educating parents, coaches and athletes on concussions, and regulating the return of concussed players to practice and competition. The NFL’s most recent collective bargaining agreement reduced the amount of full-contact hitting allowed, and Ivy league football has reduced full-contact practices to two a week in season. He predicted that within five years imaging modalities such as MRI and bio-markers “will be very sensitive to when a concussion has happened” and when it is safe for an athlete to return to sports.
SportsLetter interviewed Cantu about his new book, Concussions and Our Kids: America’s Leading Expert on How to Protect Young Athletes and Keep Sports Safe (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), co-authored by Mark Hyman.