Pro Football Hall of Famer and retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre says parents today are right to think twice before letting young children play tackle football.
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“If I had a son, I would be very, very reluctant to let him play [football] knowing what I know now - which is not a lot. At least for us, there is still so little known about [chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the brain disease linked to repeated head hits] but what we do know is, it’s not good, especially for youth,” Favre tells FOX Business in an exclusive interview this week during National Brain Injury Awareness Month.
“You have to believe that every time a kid is tackled … that she or he is doing detrimental things to his or her brain that may be irreversible. That is really scary. I would be very reluctant. I’m thankful that I have two beautiful daughters and don’t have a son and have to worry about that,” he adds.
While Favre has raised these concerns before, more athletes are speaking out. Chris Nowinski, a former WWE wrestler and co-founder of Boston University’s CTE Center as well as CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, argues that that the NFL needs to stop funding youth tackle programs because it simply isn’t safe for kids.
“The evidence now is swinging wildly toward this. We should have never allowed 5-year-olds to play tackle football, it was always meant to be high school age and above. We are now trying to tell parents that, and most NFL players are going to back that -- but the NFL continues to increase their investment in trying to enroll youth in tackle football for business reasons. Not for their health. And, the only way to make NFL players safe going forward is change what happens to them before they get to the NFL. The NFL is completely moving in the wrong direction on this right now,” Nowinski tells FOX Business.
An NFL spokesperson declined to comment for this story to FOX Business, but did pass along NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s open letter from last year, citing the league’s commitment to the “health and safety” of young players.
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“We wholeheartedly believe in the value of young people playing football and other sports. We embrace the opportunity to be leaders in athletic safety. We know that families across America grapple with whether to let their children play football. And we appreciate that there is real concern about tackle football. We want to encourage the best minds to look at youth programs—not just football, but all sports. We will commit resources to fund new studies that examine how age, size, cognitive development and other elements should factor into youth athletics. Our goal will be to equip parents with the best available information to make decisions about their children’s participation in football and other contact sports,” Goodell wrote in September.
And in 2014, the NFL Foundation awarded a $45 million grant to the USA Football program, the official youth football development partner of the NFL and its 32 teams. The “Heads Up Football” program is designed to “take the head out of tackling,” and teach youngsters how to tackle safely while avoiding injury. The NFL said the funds would help bring the program to all 10,000 youth football leagues across the country and expand it at the high school level, “providing continuity in fundamentals, terminology and health and safety protocols from the youth to the high school level.”
However Goodell told reporters last year during a press conference ahead of Super Bowl 50 that he was glad he was able to play tackle football for nine years before college, and if he had a son he would “love to have him play the game of football.”
“There’s risk in life. There’s risk in sitting on the couch,” Goodell said in February 2016, when asked to comment on player safety.
Lance Briggs, a former Chicago Bears linebacker, who retired in 2014, says after 30 years of both taking and receiving big hits on the field -- which started during his youth -- he is already seeing early signs of CTE, along with some of his former teammates.
“We just call it ‘fog,’ and to me, we are still trying to learn about it. There are certain issues that I’m still trying to figure out and I’m not putting myself in a category where you know I’m battling CTE, I’m not on suicide watch or anything like that, you know, but I am living with it,” Briggs tells FOX Business.
Favre and Briggs have teamed up with a sports-centric social media startup called Sqor to raise awareness about CTE.
“I am well aware that getting hit in the head and hitting my head on the turf over and over again isn’t good. I don’t need the NFL to tell me that, and I think players now who are drafted or are in their rookie season are well aware of the potential risks … way more today than when Lance and I came into the league,” Favre says. “I think the [NFL] needs to address it from a prevention and treatment point of view, rather than awareness.”
Favre spent the bulk of his career with the Green Bay Packers and retired from the field for good in 2011. While he says he “feels great,” today, the recent news of former NFL wide receiver Dwight Clark announcing that he has ALS does scare him.
“The latest news with Dwight Clark announcing that he has ALS doesn’t bode well for others, at least the forecast if you will. It’s really scary,” Favre says.
“I feel great, and I say that not really knowing what great means for a non-football player. For playing as long as [Lance and I] had and the way that we played, I’m very thankful. But I feel like putting certain words into a sentence that used to be easy -- or trying to think of an easy word -- and I’m just trying to throw out examples, [it] has become harder. Then I go ‘Well, I am 47 years old, so maybe that has something to do with it,’” he adds.
Earlier this month, the NFL denied allegations made in a lawsuit which, according to the Washington Post, accused the league’s 32 teams of violating federal laws in the distribution of painkillers and other prescription drugs. The NFL told FOX Business the reported lawsuit is “meritless” and “simply wrong.”
Favre, who has openly discussed his battle with painkillers in the 1990s, says while he doesn’t blame the NFL for his former addiction, playing football was part of the problem.
“I know it was a direct result of playing that at least got me associated with them. Then eventually, it became ‘I kind of like this, and I’m not really sure if I’m hurting enough to take it’ - that was kind of the point of no return,” he says. However he does think things have gotten better – not worse -- for NFL players today.
“I think the league has gotten so much better, and each team has gotten so much better at addressing that situation. There was a time, my first year or two, I don’t want to say it was whatever it takes to get back on the field, but close to that. Now, it has shifted a little bit, where there is actually inventory and audit systems -- and things like that are more important for your safety, from a mental standpoint, than getting back on the field. So, there has been a shift in that regard, and I think is much better today than when I first started in the league,” Favre says.