It has been a horrendous week for football. So what are parents, cheering on their helmeted kids on brisk autumn afternoons, to do?
The question comes easier than the answer.
On Thursday, we learned that Aaron Hernandez, the Patriots tight end who laid waste to so many lives before ending his own at 27, had a form of the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy so advanced that it shocked researchers at Boston University. His family is suing the NFL, alleging the league knew the risks of repeated hits and failed to protect his safety.
The Hernandez shocker came two days after news of a study, also by researchers at the CTE Center at BU, positing that the risks of developing behavioral problems and of suffering depression later in life are greater for those who play tackle football before the age of 12, compared to those who start playing later.
But we’re not talking only about concussions here: Ordinary hits can damage the brain, too, says Robert Stern, a neuroscientist who coauthored the latest study. Concussions are just “the tip of the iceberg,” he says: Kids average about 200 hits per season in youth football, and many more in high school and beyond. Most of those hits are sub-concussive, and the symptoms aren’t obvious, which means kids aren’t being treated or rested. Their developing brains are being damaged and they’re continuing to play.
“I’m much more concerned about the routine play of tackle football,” Stern says. “The way it’s played right now, it’s impossible to avoid those hits.”
The research has limitations: There’s no way to detect CTE before death. And the subjects of some of these studies are self-selecting: those former players whose brains are donated for examination already exhibited symptoms of the disease, for example.
But Stern has seen enough to convince him that kids under 12 should not be playing tackle football, period.
“It just doesn’t make sense to put our kids on a field and have them put on this big helmet and say ‘Go at it, hit your heads hundreds of times each season with the most precious organ in the body in there,’” he said.
All of this can leave parents wondering.
Count me among those who are alarmed enough by the research to forbid their kids from playing football, now or ever. But for others, it’s a more complicated proposition.
Heidi Donovan’s 18-year-old son started playing Pop Warner in Somerville when he was 6, and continued through high school.
“I hold my breath every time he gets on the field, and exhale every time he gets off,” she said. She knows it’s a rough sport, but she wouldn’t consider trying to keep him from playing it. She has always trusted his coaches to keep him safe.
“Of course we all want to wrap our kids up in bubble wrap and keep them safe forever,” she said. “But as a parent, I’m going to worry if he’s on the football field or on the playground.”
I heard this from parents repeatedly: That other sports, and pretty much all of childhood, come with risks too. No other sport — save boxing — makes hits as central to the game as football does, however. Still, these parents believe their kids are playing safely, and that whatever risks they face are worth it.
Michelle McCullough’s 9-year-old son Wyatt lives for football. He joined the Salem Witches when he was in first grade. His mother says the game has helped enormously with his behavioral and attention problems. It’s a lot to give up.
“I’m more of a person, you live life by the day,” she said. “I’m not going to shelter my son from something he loves doing because of something that could happen, but maybe never will.”
There’s always a study to tell you something is unhealthy, then others come along to contradict them, McCullough said, echoing the sentiments of others I spoke to. She would prefer her son start early in tackle football — rather than join one of the region’s rapidly-growing flag-football leagues until he’s older — so that he learns how to protect his head now.
Youth football is safer than it once was: As the science has progressed, leagues have introduced concussion protocols that kick in when helmets crash; and some rules have changed to cut down on hits. But safer isn’t safe enough for Stern, who believes millions of kids have been exposed to harm.
Still, he has been where these parents are, and he understands the tremendous pull of youth football. His eldest son, now 28, was a talented player who started in Pop Warner and played high school football in Needham. Stern reveled in the storied Needham-Wellesley Thanksgiving Day games, and in all the others — a thought that amazes him now.
“I loved it,” he said. “It was fantastic. Here I was, a brain person, and I didn’t know.”Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.
Correction: Robert Stern was misidentified in an earlier version of this article.