April 13, 2012 at 1:40 PM ET
The NHL hockey playoffs are under way. The contact is fierce and the fans love it. I do, too. But there is big trouble brewing for the future of hockey, football and other contact sports -- concussions. If hockey does not change, it has a dim future. Not because of the injuries being suffered by professional players but because of parents trying to do the right thing by keeping their kids away from a dangerous sport.
The rates of injury in youth hockey, especially concussions, are frightening. Among some 9,000 11- and 12-year-old players in Alberta, Canada, there are some 700 concussions in a season, as the New York Times reported in 2010. They are so bad, it is hard to imagine a parent letting a kid play contact hockey.
Given what is being learned about the long-term damage caused by concussions, how long will parents be willing to let their kids play hockey? Not long, I think.
The number of kids playing contact hockey in Canada is, according to recent studies, dropping. It is easy to see why. With high-profile stars such as Sidney Crosby, Chris Pronger, Claude Giroux, Zbynek Michalek, Jeff Skinner and Mike Richards all sidelined this season for long stints because of concussions, what is a parent to think about encouraging a child to play? The Canadian Medical Association in a just-published article asks a question that parents will dread and the NHL won’t like: “Hockey concussion: Is it child abuse?” The answer for many parents seems to be: yes.
If you listen to sports talk radio, the airwaves are full of hosts and callers decrying the "wussification" of hockey -- and football, too. "You cannot take the big hits out of these games without destroying them," the lamentation goes.
Perhaps. But how many parents are going to let their kids play a game trying to emulate their heroes when the icons are regularly getting their bells rung? It is one thing to face the risk of brain damage as an adult to get a big paycheck. It is another thing for a parent to watch a school-age son get smacked in the head with a stick or have his head knocked into the boards. Parents increasingly are going to feel they ought not let their kids play.
Think I am wrong? Shift over to football.
Not so long ago, I had a chance to talk to former NFL pro middle linebacker Harry Carson, who played with distinction for the New York Giants. I asked him if he would want his son to play college or pro football. He said no, that the game is far too dangerous. The risk of concussion in the game now makes encouraging a kid to play football irresponsible.
Parents are in a horrific bind. Their kids want to play contact sports but their coaches want them to emulate the pros. Oversight groups make noises about a safer game, but the concussion rate grows and grows. Parents want their kids to play sports to keep them out of trouble and to encourage habits and virtues that will help them later in life. But they certainly don't want to see them with headaches, memory loss and learning difficulties later on, either.
The industry that is contact sports in North America is not going away any time soon. But it is in trouble, even if few are willing to say so. If the NHL and NFL cannot make their games safer, those who insist on the big hits will find fewer pros available to play because more parents will chose safety over risk. As evidence grows about the toll concussions take on the pros, the chance that a parent will let a child take those risks gets smaller every day.
Should youth sports emulate the pros? Do you think games like contact lacrosse or hockey can be made safer for kids? Share your thoughts on Facebook
Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.