“You can’t replace a brain.” These are the words Dr. Kathleen Bachynski, professor of Public Health, used to describe the severity of head injuries as she addressed the room of about 30 students and others. Unlike bones that heal with time or ligaments and tendons that can be surgically repaired, damage to the brain can never be undone. Tackle football, a sport that has grown to be a vital aspect of American culture, presents a significant public health concern, especially as the sport does not seem to be slowing down any time soon.
“You can’t replace a brain.”
For Dr. Bachynski, her biggest public health concern is not brain injuries as they relate to professional football, but as it relates to youth football. The youth that play tackle football significantly outweigh those playing both in college as well as in the pros. Statistics from 2015, which are roughly the same today according to Bachynski, show that roughly 2,000,000 children play youth football, while another 1,000,000 play at the high school level and 100,000 at the collegiate level. These numbers, indicated by Bachynski, show that 95 percent of football players are in fact children.
While children dominate the nationwide football community today, many of Muhlenberg’s football stars actually got their start in the sport when they were youngsters themselves. This was exactly the case for tight end Ryan Curtiss ‘20, who reflected upon his start on the gridiron. “I was introduced to football in second grade when I was eight years old. I had played flag football for two years before that, but actually started playing [tackle] football when I was eight years old,” Curtiss said.
For others, like Joseph O’Hagan ‘20, football is in their blood. Being the son of a former football player, it was inevitable that O’Hagan would be introduced to the sport. “I have been playing football for as long as I can remember,” O’Hagan explained. “My father played college football and was a football coach before I was born, so I have been surrounded by the game forever. I have been playing the game since I [could] walk, but I began playing tackle football in the third grade and have been playing ever since,” O’Hagan continued.
O’Hagan, however, is not the only one to have been shown the game of football at a young age. The same applies to defensive end Frank Lucchesi ’20. “My father introduced me to football,” Lucchesi said. “I started playing when I was seven, and I can tell you that football is a part of my life.” For Lucchesi, football is clearly something he holds close to his heart.
What is consistent for all three men is the fact they all began their football careers around the age of seven, eight or nine. As Bachynski noted, the optimal age that is agreed upon for children to start playing tackle football is 14.
With new information surrounding brain trauma emerging, especially with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the urgency to protect our developing youth is imperative. The vulnerability, as Bachynski pointed out, is rooted in the weaker skulls, necks and the still-developing brains of these young footballers. In protecting our youth, we must also look to the ethical concerns that are in play. Bachynski made clear that as mere children, they lack the ability to give informed consent. In regards to football, this means that children are unable to access and fully understand the short-term and long-term effects and therefore must rely on their parents to make these decisions for them.
The risks faced by children playing football are clear, and Curtiss understands the struggle, as he has suffered concussions himself. “I have had two concussions in my time playing football: one in fourth grade and another in the seventh grade,” he said. While he has been fortunate ever since, it is vital that these moments be highlighted.
Another essential aspect of Bachynski’s newly published book, No Game for Boys to Play, is the critical eye which she employs to assess not only the public health risks involved, but also the important historical developments that have shaped youth tackle football. Without cultivating an understanding for how football has progressed to what it is today, this pressing issue cannot be understood.
Bachynsky pointed to two instances in which medical professionals begged boys to not participate in such collision sports. One came from an editorial in 1906 written by The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Even as it was advised that there “need be no such hesitation, however, in deciding that football is no game for boys,” it was ignored by the general public. And even prior to that, The Chicago Tribune in 1894 stated that football “is the only athletic sport which brings the whole bodies of players into violent collision.”
While these statements were ignored, it is easy to see why, especially if you look to O’Hagan, Curtiss and Lucchesi. For them, life without football is not an option. As they have grown throughout the years, football has always been there and for them, and giving the sport up has never been a thought.
“None of that goes through my mind. Football is a part of my life and has taught me a lot about myself, and I have learned many qualities that well help me excel in the real world,” Lucchesi said.
O’Hagan shares the same sentiment as his teammate, simply stating, “Football has shaped me into the person that I have become today, and I would not take that back for anything. The amount of memories and friendships that I have made from playing football are too valuable to ever second-guess.”
Although the issues surrounding youth tackle football remain, its importance among children and adults remains as well. In order to protect and ensure the wellbeing of these football players, the men of Muhlenberg Football have some ideas.
“To protect the youth and the game of football, these players need to be trained well and prepared well for making the right plays at the right time. Tackling the right way and doing the training to keep your body healthy is very important. If you do not correctly play the game, then that is when injuries can occur,” Curtiss explained.
O’Hagan completely agrees with Curtiss, as he looks at coaches and their job to stress the importance of safety. “As long as coaches continue to emphasize the importance of safety in the game of football, I believe there is nothing to worry about,” O’Hagan said.
“To protect the youth and the game of football, these players need to be trained well and prepared well for making the right plays at the right time.”
Lucchesi, on the other hand, actually wants to see the age when these children can begin playing tackle football raised. “I would say start tackle football at a higher age, once kids have the ability to comprehend and make their own decisions.”
The public health issue presented by Dr. Bachynski in her new book sheds light on a tremendous aspect of American culture, and with Muhlenberg Football set to begin their NCAA playoff run on Saturday, Nov. 23 against MIT, this is an all-too-appropriate time to reflect upon this crisis.