Concussions and Informed Consent

Posted on June 10, 2013 by

My soon to be 10 year old step-son wants to play football. I guess this should not come as a surprise. He has watched me get entertained by the sport for as long as he can remember. I taught him how to throw a football, run a crisp stop and go, and had many discussions with him about the history of the game and the players I respected for their gutsy performances on the field. But should we (my wife and I) allow him to play this dangerous sport?

It is often assumed, and for good reason, that children are not in a position to give consent because they cannot properly weigh the costs and benefits that certain actions or procedures would have on their lives, both at the moment of action and in the future. Because of this parents are looked to for consent under the assumption that most parents can properly weigh the costs and benefits. Consider a minor taking a job (in film for example), or when a child needs surgery or an invasive medical procedure. Parents must weigh the risk of the job or procedure and deem if the benefits outweigh the harm. In weighing the risks and rewards of playing organized American football I cannot, in good taste, feel comfortable claiming that children should be afforded the opportunity to play. In fact, I do not think children should be allowed to play. The more I think about it the more apparent this conclusion becomes. In what follows I will offer some of the considerations that have pushed me to believe this.

Injuries : Concussions are serious! Especially for an undeveloped brain. Children’s heads are 90% that of their adult size by the age of 4 yet the muscles in their neck take longer to develop (see here). Because of this, children are not very good protectors of their brain. They cannot brace themselves for the hits they receive which makes it easier for them to get a concussion, an injury that is already prevalent within the sport. Not to mention the unnecessary wear and tear on their joints. This puts them at a higher risk for arthritis later in life.

Availability of Alternatives : With so many other sports offering up a great way to get outside and be active (with far less chance of injury) it becomes difficult to justify the need to allow my children to play.

These points aside you might ask what ever happened to letting kids be kids. I hear this phrase a lot and I feel its intuitive pull. But the phrase is not an argument in and of itself for why it is permissible for parents to let children play organized tackle football.

Could someone who thinks it is morally permissible to let their child play tackle football (some children begin playing at age 5)  engage with me in an open discussion about why we should or should not allow children to play tackle football? Thanks in advance.

Also, another great question that arises from the discussion tends to be this, if we agree that we should not let them play football are we sending the wrong message by watching the sport with them?

Here is a link to some research done as to why children should not play until the age of 14, however, the reasoning by the authors could, or so I think, be extended a bit further to college age (see here for problems with high school football).

What do you think? Does the claim that we should not allow kids to play football open the door to the charge that we are over-parenting or being over-protective? Is that charge warranted?

What’s your take?