Iowa Poll: 42 percent wouldn’t let kids play football –

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Elizabeth Bachmann jokes that her 1-year-old son is a future lineman. And she’d have no problem with that becoming a reality.

“There are risks with everything you do, every single day,” said Bachmann, 30, of Doon. “Every time you walk out the door of your house, you take a risk.”

Her husband, Luke, suffered broken bones while playing football and basketball. But not allowing children to take part in football limits their experiences, she said.

“You limit them to grow socially,” she said. “You limit them to be able to make their own choices and be able to learn from mistakes.”

Bachmann is among 49 percent of Iowans who say they would want their children to play football, according to a new Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll. But 42 percent of respondents answered no.

The perennial question facing parents comes amid heightened awareness of concussion risks. And as researchers continue to explore the links between brain injuries and America’s most popular sport, participation in high school football nationwide has declined slightly.

“As far as I’m concerned, there’s no reason to play football,” said Jim Kimball, 77, a retired family physician living in Osceola. “I think if you strike the head hard enough, the brain is going to bounce around in there.”

Geoffrey Lauer, executive director for the Brain Injury Alliance of Iowa, said doctors are gaining a greater understanding when it comes to concussions and specifically sub-concussive blows to the head. The consequences for youth football players, whose bodies are still developing, may not be immediately apparent.

“People change subtly as they’re growing anyway,” Lauer said. “We’ll never know whether our kids would have a different neurological trajectory.”

In the 2008-09 school year, 1,113,062 students participated in 11-player football nationwide. In 2014-15, that number dropped to 1,085,182, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations. Iowa also saw a slight decrease, with 18,126 playing in the fall of 2014, compared to 20,316 six years earlier.

“I don’t know if I can say one way or another whether I’m surprised we haven’t seen as big a dropoff,” said Eric Trudo, the coach at Van Meter High School and president of that town’s youth football program. “I think it shows parents are making an informed decision in their particular individual case.”

Head trauma in football began creeping into the national conversation during the 1990s, as former players such hall of fame center Mike Webster talked publicly about symptoms such as dementia. In the late 2000s, doctors started learning more about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and its connection to head trauma. In 2013, the NFL agreed to pay $765 million to settle a lawsuit filed by retired players who said the NFL concealed from them the dangers of concussions. The NFL’s protocol for dealing with players who are concussed has evolved over the past several years, and Commissioner Roger Goodell signaled this season the protocols would likely be tweaked more.

The death last September of Tyler Sash, an Oskaloosa native who became a star defensive back for the Iowa Hawkeyes and won a Super Bowl with the New York Giants, brought the issue closer to home for Iowans. Sash died at age 27 due to a mixture of drugs, but testing revealed he suffered from CTE, a degenerative brain disease.

Support for wanting a child to play football was split by age and gender, poll results show. A majority of men would let their child play football (55 percent), compared with 43 percent of women. More women (48 percent) said they would not let their child play football, compared with 36 percent of men.

People under the age of 35 were more likely to let their child play football (62 percent) than people 55 and older (37 percent).

The poll was conducted by Selzer & Co., which surveyed 804 Iowa adults Feb. 21-24. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Kimball, the retired physician, had two sons who played football, but his medical experience offered him a different perspective.

“It’s a feeling we had before,” Kimball said of brain injuries, “but with recent changes that have come out, it’s pretty obvious there’s a real danger here.”

A 2013 study published on The Journal of the American Medical Association website showed concussions accounted for 9.6 percent of youth football injuries, 4 percent of high school injuries and 8 percent in college.

Joyce Lindeman, 69, of Cedar Rapids, said she wouldn’t let a child play football because of the potential hazards to all parts of the body.

“The kids are still growing and they’re still forming muscle and bones, et cetera,” she said. “And some of that is too big of a stress on those joints, especially football.”

But Mario Wright, 27, from Davenport, would prefer his child play football rather than sitting around on the couch.

“Why stop (them) from doing something, especially that kids enjoy?” Wright said. “These days, so many kids are stuck in houses, not getting out and playing. Sports is some kids’ only opportunity to get out.”

Lauer said he also sees the benefits of playing football.

“Team sports changes our kids’ brains in positive ways, too,” Lauer said. “They learn how to work together. They learn communication and a sense of play. They learn moral and ethical issues on the field.”

Trudo says coaches can improve the game and make it safer by teaching and stressing proper fundamentals.

“I can say, specifically related to our case, we’re teaching tackling a little bit different,” he said. “I think it’s a little safer, but I also think it’s a little bit better.

“We had fewer missed tackles this past year than I can remember, or at least in a couple years.”

Lauer points out that new rules have reduced the amount of contact players experience in practice, and he can envision a time when kickoffs are eliminated. The Ivy League this week said their member schools would no longer tackle in practices. 

Meanwhile, research on brain health needs to continue, for the sake of athletes in all sports, Lauer said.

“As we learn over the course of a season and a football career, or a soccer career, or a cheerleading career,” he said, “our youth athletes may be getting much more than we bargaining for.”


The Iowa Poll, conducted Feb. 21-24 for The Des Moines Register and Mediacom by Selzer & Co. of Des Moines, is based on telephone interviews with 804 Iowans ages 18 or older. Interviewers with Quantel Research contacted households with randomly selected landline and cell phone numbers supplied by Survey Sampling International. Interviews were administered in English. Responses were adjusted by age, sex and congressional district to reflect the general population based on recent census data.

Questions based on the sample of 804 Iowa adults have a maximum margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. This means that if this survey were repeated using the same questions and the same methodology, 19 times out of 20, the findings would not vary from the percentages shown here by more than plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. Results based on smaller samples of respondents — such as by gender or age — have a larger margin of error.

Republishing the copyright Iowa Poll without credit to The Des Moines Register and Mediacom is prohibited. 

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