Parents in denial as evidence mounts that football hurts kids’ brains

For the most part, parents can be pretty over-the-top when it comes to protecting their kids from risks real and imagined.

So why are they letting them play youth football?

NBC reports on a study being released today that shows the brain changes after just one season of suiting up, even if the player doesn’t have a concussion.

“This is important, particularly for children, because their brains are undergoing such rapid change, particularly in the age category from maybe 9 to 18. And we just don’t know a lot of about it,” said Dr. Chris Whitlow, one of the lead researchers.

It’s not yet clear whether the changes are permanent, but former Minnesota Viking Greg DeLong, whose 12-year-old son is part of the study, isn’t sure he wants to find out.

“Football’s important to us, but there are other things out there that are more important,” he said.

The Wake Forest group studied 25 players between the ages of 8 and 13 in the Titans youth football program in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Each boy was given a helmet outfitted with sensors that measured the frequency and severity of impacts — 60 percent of them absorbed during practice — and transmitted the information to a laptop on the sidelines.

Dr. Alex Powers, a pediatric neurologist involved in the research, said it was surprising to see how forceful the grade-schoolers’ hits were.

“They are hitting at extremely high levels,” he said.

The collected data was analyzed against pre-season and post-season MRIs of the players’ brains. The high-tech scans looked for tiny changes in white matter, which is the tissue that connects the neuron-rich gray matter, the researchers said.

“We have detected some changes in the white matter,” Whitlow said. “And the importance of those changes is that the more exposure you have to head impacts, the more change you have.”

Just as important, Whitlow said, are the questions unresolved by the study.

“Do these changes persist over time or do they just simply go away? Do you get more changes with more seasons of play? And most importantly, do these changes result in any kind of long-term change in function like memory or attention or anything that would be important in your ability to function day to day?”

The results so far, however, aren’t bothering some parents, one of whom tells NBC that football motivates her kids to keep their grades up and chase their dreams.

“Worth the risk?” she said. “I say absolutely.”

DeLong’s son took two years off from the game when he started having headaches, but he’s back playing now.

“Until he stops loving football, he’s gonna continue to play,” DeLong tells NBC.