Sports

Bolden injury highlights dangers of tackle football as fewer children take up the sport

Researchers continue to find evidence that links the sport to conditions like CTE, Parkinson’s and ALS.

Isaiah Bolden
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

New England Patriots cornerback Isaiah Bolden’s injury during a pre-season game against Green Bay is prompting renewed safety concerns among medical professionals as data shows fewer children are playing the sport across Massachusetts.

Data from the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association shows about a 10% decrease in youth football enrollment compared to 10 years ago, dropping from more than 20,100 participants in 2013-2014 to just over 18,000 in 2022-2023. Meanwhile, researchers continue to find evidence that links the sport to conditions like CTE, Parkinson’s and ALS.

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YearFootball Participants
2022-2318,013
2021-2217,198
2018-1918,098
2017-1819,011
2016-1718,967
2015-1619,811
2014-1519,871
2013-1420,139
2012-1319,667
2011-1219,888
Data courtesy of MIAA

CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player and professional wrestler, suggests waiting to enroll children in tackle football until they reach middle or high school and registering for flag football instead, where children are less likely to experience direct blows to the head.

“The data shows very clearly that flag football is growing very quickly and youth tackle football is declining, especially at the younger stages,” Nowinski told NBC10 Boston Monday.

Nowinski acknowledged that the NFL has made important policy changes to improve safety, which includes creating concussion protocols, limiting hits in practice and reducing the number of kickoffs per game. Nowinski added there’s more work to be done, however, particularly at the youth level.

“If the NFL wants to have the next big move on making their players safer, they have to change what happens to football players before they get on an NFL field,” Nowinski said. “Football is the only team sport left in the U.S. where the 5-year-olds are playing by the same rules as the adults.”

Local youth football nonprofit Pop Warner issued a statement via email pointing to changes the organization has made to improve safety for children, including removing three-point stance and kickoffs for younger age groups, reducing the amount of contact allowed during practice and mandating coaching education to teach blocking and tackling.

During a Monday morning press conference, New England Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick said prioritizing safety at the professional level is the right call.

“I think a lot of the rule changes have been beneficial,” Belichick said. “The sports the sport. It’s a contact sport so there’s always going to be an element of collisions and contact, but try to make it as safe as possible.”

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