by Rod Trafford
Many parents ask themselves, is football dangerous for my kids to play? Football is one of the most popular recreational sports in the US for adults, adolescents and children. Around 5.25 million people above the age of six years are participating in football. The number of U.S. Americans playing tackle football increased in 2021 for the first time since the mid-2010. (1)
Football is a contact sport, so injuries do happen. While football is a great way to stay physically active and be part of a team sport, it has one the highest injury and concussion rates among all sports posing the question; is football safe? The risks of playing football are real, and many parents are interested in learning about the dangers of football and especially prevention of concussion.
Prior to 2010, there was a growing concern if tackle football was safe to play, especially for adolescents and children. This age group is at more significant risk as their brains are still in development. Parents were fearful of their kids participating due to a widespread notion that their children are more susceptible to these head injuries and even if high school football is worth it. One of the main topics of concern was the inherent risk for head injuries and concussions at such a young age and how you can help prevent concussions.
Around this time, while making national headlines news, former NFL players were now being diagnosed with C.T.E. (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), a neurodegenerative disease caused by a buildup of a protein called Tau in the brain.
From these latest developments, and with a better understanding of these injuries and concussion prevention, the NFL looked to lead the way by establishing protocols and procedures to help reduce the risk and better address the potential for head injuries and best practices for concussion prevention. While preventing all concussions is an impossible task, the goal moved towards reducing the risk of concussions to make football safer.
So how did the NFL improve the playing experiences to make the game safer? The NFL has done a great job of imposing a multi-level strategy that included better testing protocols for football protective headgear, football safety rule enforcement, limiting exposure rates (tackle practices) during training camp and education for their players and coaches to better understand the injury and signs and symptoms of concussions. Since implementing these preventive measures the NFL has reduced concussion by 24% and these numbers have stayed low since 2018. (2)
One of the biggest outcomes from these new initiatives was the advancement in football helmet technology, which has improved significantly since 2010. The NFL initiated higher safety standards through the NFL/NFLPA Biokinetics helmet laboratory testing. In collaboration with the NFLPA, and their respected biomechanical experts, the NFL coordinated extensive laboratory research to evaluate which helmets best reduce head impact severity (3).
These new testing standards have allowed players, teams and their staff to educate themselves on each product and make informed decisions. The NFL has been leading the way which has also had a positive trickle down effect to high school and youth levels. Since 2011, Virginia Tech researchers have also been providing unbiased helmet ratings that allow for better informed decisions at the high school football level for teenagers playing football, with the goal for schools, leagues and parents to make better, informed decisions.
One of the solutions in making football safe for youth was to offer a version of the sport that eliminated tackling and exposure to constant hitting. Younger athletes' brains, both male and female, are still in development at this age and limiting exposure to tackling and the potential head to head impact is very important. This version came to be known as Flag Football and 7x7 Football. Over the last few years, there has been a decline in the number of people playing tackle football. On the flipside, the growth of Flag Football and 7x7 participation has exploded. Currently, it is the fastest growing sport globally and in the U.S there are roughly 6.9 million people participating in Flag Football and 7x7.
These versions of the game have created a great opportunity for kids of all ages to get their start in football and provides a safer alternative to tackle, while players can learn the proper fundamentals and techniques to hone their skills. Players do not hit or tackle, rather they have to pull a flag on the opposing team's belt, or two hand touch, which would signify a tackle and stoppage of play. Many parents and younger athletes are finding Flag Football and 7x7 Football a great introduction and alternative to tackle football, while reducing the risks of playing football and full contact.
The popularity of the sport has grown so much that colleges and universities are now offering Flag Football as a scholarship sport for female athletes. The first to do so was the NAIA conference, supported by NFL FLAG. The inclusion of the Women's game is sure to provide great opportunities and access to play this exciting, fast-past game across the board. Because of the new creation of Female Flag Football at the college level, there will also be supporting youth/and adolescent feeder programs to support the growth of these college programs. There are also newly formed professional leagues such as the UFFL (United Flag Football League).
While Flag football and 7x7 provides a safer alternative to tackle, there is still the potential for injury, though much lower. Currently, mouthguards are mostly worn and mandatory with the goal of preventing and reducing the risk of any dental injury or dental trauma. Potential head injury can occur as well.
There are a hand-full of potential head injury risks in Flag Football and 7x7. Some include incidental contact, head to head contact, head to elbow and head to ground contact. Flag Football teams and leagues have started to implement elevated safety initiatives for football head protection to stay out in front of the conversation and ahead of the curve with implementing soft football helmets and concussion headbands. While no helmet or headband will ever be concussion proof, these soft shells add an extra layer of safety and provide a piece of mind to the parents, coaches and athletes during competition and their athletic development. While there are many soft helmets available, current football helmet soft shells have offered little innovation, added value or improved technology. These soft helmet football products resemble rugby scrum caps from 30 years ago and lack the desired look and aesthetics that athletes are used to. They also hold water and sweat, limit heat dissipation from the head, and are not visually appealing.
Here is the good news, there are companies like SYZMIK that are taking football protective headgear and soft shell helmets in football very seriously. The SYZMIK X-Series Headgear line was created to better address what the older soft-padded helmets lacked in protection, style and design. With the sudden influx of player participation for both Flag and 7x7, and as athletes continue to get bigger, stronger and faster, a new and improved soft-shell headgear was needed for today's athlete. The SYZMIK X7 Soft-Shell offers many advantages compared to the competition. SYZMIK’s unique padding fit system ensures a custom fit. The best fitting helmet and soft-shell headgear is one of the most important factors in reducing the risk of potential head injuries.
The X7 was awarded a 5 Star Safety Rating from Virginia-Tech, one of the highest safety ratings ever achieved. While having the most innovative and top performing products and headgear is our top priority, the SYZMIK X7 can also be fully customized with decals and wrapped in any team's color and logo to match perfectly with their kit and offer the swag that leagues and teams are looking for.
Coupled with one of the safest soft-shells on the market, the SYZMIK X7 is the lightest headgear available, weighing in at less than 300 grams. SYZMIK has also gone above and beyond to better understand the biomechanics of potential head injuries in Flag Football partnering with Corvid Technologies who also works with the D.O.D and other arms of the US government. Using their 3D Caveman high-fidelity computational model and their predictive outcomes of loading events on the human anatomy, while running along side the Virginia Tech testing protocols for soft-shell headgear, SYZMIK has been able to show a dramatic reduction in brain strain of individuals wearing the X7 vs not wearing an X7. On the field and during play, feedback and playing experience of the X-Series HeadGear line has been outstanding, and both male and female flag athletes are noticing the difference during play.
With participation numbers declining in the past it is good to see the NFL and NFLPA, and other organizations taking the necessary steps to make the game safer to protect their players through better equipment, rule enforcement and limiting overall exposure. As a former NFL Athlete, from my playing days and now as an avid fan, it is great to see the NFL and NFLPA doing all they can to make this game we love as safe as possible. One of the biggest advancements has been in helmet technology. While no helmet can ever be concussion proof and injuries do happen in football we can all make the best choices to educate ourselves on this topic. Another choice for parents and young athletes to participate in a verison of football, without all the hitting and tacking is through Flag Football and 7x7 Football. These two versions of the sport offer a great introduction to the game, and provide a similar experience without contact. With the participation of Flag and 7x7 skyrocketing and the fact that Flag football is now part of the World Games and slated to be an Olympic sport in 2028, more participation equals more potential risk of injury.
As preventive measures are taken to keep these versions of the game as safe as possible, the opportunity to incorporate soft-shell headgear will be important for teams and leagues. The future of Flag Football and 7x7 is very bright and will continue to grow, offering another opportunity and positive experience for both male and female athletes to compete and be part of a team during their athletics journeys.
In closing, the question remains, is football dangerous? Yes, it is, however; like all sports football poses inherent risks. However; there are steps players, parents and coaches can take to inform them to make the best choices:
Some choices include:
Learning about the multi-level strategy the NFL/NFLPA has put in place for injury prevention and best practices.
Reviewing the latest advancements in innovative safety equipment and testing protocols from leading experts.
Reviewing the Virginia Tech Helmet Safety Rating for Soft-Shell Headgear.
Make the choices that fit your personal situation best. Education is paramount.
Author: Rod Trafford of SYZMIK