Worries about concussions and their long-term effects are driving many younger athletes away from football, according to a new U.S. study published in the JAMA Pediatrics.
Since 2008, the number of high school football players has steadily dropped while awareness about the links between head injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has spread.
As the study shows, overall participation in high school sports is at an all-time high. It has grown from less than 4 million student-athletes in 2001 to nearly 4.6 million last year. However, football participation has fallen almost 5% from a peak of 1.11 million athletes in 2008 to 1.06 players in 2017.
“This decline is associated with media attention focused on concussions or brain injuries among football players,” said study co-author Dr. Chris Feudtner of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
Between 2001 and 2008, football participation grew 8%. If this trend had continued unabated, the researchers estimate approximately 184,000 more athletes would have played football in 2017. Instead, the researchers say these athletes potentially avoided between 6,700 and 14,000 concussions by selecting another sport.
The study by Feudtner and colleagues isn’t exactly concrete evidence of a culture change, however. It did not include youth players in non-scholastic leagues like Pop Warner or USA Football. Still, it provides further evidence that parents and young athletes alike are becoming increasingly aware that football carries a high-risk for repeated head trauma.
As Dr. Monica Vavilala, director of the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center in Seattle told Reuters Health, “this study does suggest a shift to other sports.” However, she cautions this isn’t the beginning of the end for sports-related brain injuries.
“While at the outset, this might seem like we have solved the problem of sports-related concussion, this is not necessarily the case because other sports are also associated with concussion such as hockey, soccer, and basketball,” said Vavilala.