It’s a gut-wrenching scene that pretty much sums up any parent’s worst nightmare. With the entire world looking on, Buffalo Bills’ safety Damar Hamlin collapsed in the first quarter of an NFL matchup against Cincinnati in early January, after being tackled—a normal occurrence during a football game.
Except, this time, instead of just reeling from the pain of the hit on both his body and the potential effect on the scoreboard, Hamlin had gone into cardiac arrest.
A whopping 20 minutes went by, as medics painstakingly worked to resuscitate the 24-year old’s heart. As fans at the stadium looked on in disbelief, Hamlin’s mom Nina was rushed by security to be by her son’s side.
When the initial shock was over, prayer vigils were being held for the player, who fortunately made a recovery due to lifesaving efforts on the field. Other fans wondered how the stalled game would affect both teams during a crucial point in the season.
But many parents, like myself, were left pondering: Is it safe for our kids to play football? It was all too easy to put ourselves into Nina’s shoes. Any parent who’s ever witnessed an injury in one of their children knows the feeling all too well.
“It’s an inherent risk in sports that people seem to have forgotten about over the years. Then, a tragic incident such as this brings it to the forefront of our minds,” Elaine Stack-Taylor, a mom of three from Rotterdam, New York, tells Motherly.
“There is always a concern and risk, especially in a contact sport like tackle football,” shares dad Whalen Kingsbury, whose 10-year-old son plays football. “Even with all the safety precautions, freak accidents happen and cannot be avoided.”
These same sentiments have been echoed by millions of parents across social media since that fateful Monday night. So are their concerns valid? Should I let my kid play football?
Is football safe? The risks of playing football
“All sports come with risks, some more serious than others,” says Erin Nance, MD, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and mom in New York City. “Tackle football, due to the nature of it being a contact sport, does put kids at an increased risk of injury.”
The specific injury that doctors believe led to Hamlin’s collapse on the field that day was caused by a direct hit over the heart during a specific moment in the cardiac cycle, triggering a potentially fatal disruption of the heartbeat (arrhythmia.) It’s a somewhat rare condition known as commotio cordis. And it’s not just limited to football. Cases have been reported in other sports including baseball, hockey and lacrosse.
Making football safer
According to the National Institutes of Health, there are less than 30 cases of commotio cordis per year. And while rare, this and other more common injuries such as concussion, has prompted organizations like the Concussion Legacy Foundation to strongly recommend that parents avoid enrolling their children in tackle football altogether until the age of 14.
Other measures have been taken as well. USA Football has instituted the Heads Up Tackling Method, to help players avoid spear tackling, thereby reducing the incidence of spinal cord injuries.
“Most doctors would advise parents to take into consideration the child’s developmental status, rather than an age-specific guideline, when determining if their child is ready to play football,” states Dr. Nance.
“Some of the risk has to do with how the player plays,” says dad Kingsbury. “If a player has a very aggressive, no-fear type of attitude, that risk of injury will increase, versus a player that is more cautious,” he adds.
Perhaps larger than the risk of a rare cardiac arrest is the risk of concussion and permanent long-term damage from repeat trauma to the head and brain. A recent study showed that 99% of former NFL players showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a concussion-related neurodegenerative disease.
“Parents of young athletes should be sure to report any head injuries to coaches, and medical providers, so that proper evaluation for concussion can occur,” advises John Wigal, MD, a pediatrician and sports medicine doctor at Akron Children’s Hospital.
“Children with identified concussions should be withheld from any sports until symptoms have resolved, and an observed ‘return to play’ program has been completed,” Dr. Wigal adds.
“Treatment should be administered immediately to decrease the risk of so-called ‘second impact syndrome,’ which can have a long-term effect on a child’s developing brain,” advises Dr. Nance.
Equipment also plays a part in the safety of our children on the field. “Kids should use properly sized protective equipment, which should be replaced with any signs of damage,” advises Dr. Wigal.
Having coaches, staff and parent volunteers trained in CPR, concussion recognition and other injury prevention is also integral, doctors say, to mitigate any potential long term risks. “It was the quick-thinking actions of the medical team on site who performed CPR that likely saved Hamlin’s life,” attests Dr. Nance. In these types of situations, “every second counts,” she adds.
“Hopefully what more people take away from this incident is the importance of recognizing the signs of distress and the importance of CPR training,” says Stack-Taylor.
Do the benefits of football outweigh the risks?
While youth contact sports inherently have some risks, many parents feel the benefits outweigh the risks.
“There is so much to be learned from playing these sports, and not allowing your child to do so strictly out of fear is a disservice to your family,” says Jennifer Colucci, a mom in Hopewell Junction, New York.
Massachusetts police officer and mom, Cara Rossi, puts it in perspective, given her line of work. “I had two athletes. One broke her jaw and there were many other injuries, never life threatening, but in my line of work, I see people of all ages injured or dying everyday in crashes, accidents at home, by suicide or at the hands of someone who was supposed to love them. There’s a much greater chance of that than this type of freak accident. I see the benefits of sports outweighing the negatives,” says Rossi.
Connecticut mom and fitness club owner Desiree Golub echoes Rossi’s sentiments. “The biggest concern I have is that childhood obesity is on the rise. Let’s keep kids exercising, running and playing. There is a lot of research supporting the study of the long-term effects obesity has on the bone density of children as they age. It’s a silent problem and a bigger one than potential cardiac arrest, in my opinion,” says Golub.
Indeed, football and other youth sports provide a bevy of benefits to a developing child. “Besides the obvious physical benefits like aerobic, strength and conditioning exercise, sports provide the emotional and social benefits of being on a team which include improved mood, concentration, and better self-confidence,” explains Dr. Nance.
A continuing dialogue about letting kids play football
Whichever side of the field you rest on, doctors agree, parents need to keep up the dialogue. “Parents should know they are not alone in wanting to make youth football and other sports as safe as possible,” says Dr. Wigal. “Increased dialogue over the last few years has already resulted in multiple rule and procedural changes, highlighting the universal focus on safety for young athletes.”
And without risk, there is little reward. “There is risk in everything we all do each day. All we can do is use what is available out there to keep that risk at a minimum,” says Kingsbury.
A good attitude indeed, for concerned parents who want to see their player excel both on—and off—the field.