Former NFL Players Explain Why Tackle Football Is Unhealthy

Did you grow up playing football? Do you have children, nieces, or nephews who love to get outside and toss the pigskin with each other? Football… Trista - September 29, 2019

Did you grow up playing football? Do you have children, nieces, or nephews who love to get outside and toss the pigskin with each other? Football is a sport that has earned its spot as an icon of American culture. Other countries have soccer, what they refer to as “football,” but in America, we have the Friday night lights, the Saturday college games, and the NFL.

So it may seem a bit of a shock that some retired NFL players are calling for stricter rules for kids who want to play football. Specifically, they want regulations that keep kids from playing tackle football until they are 14 years old. The reason? Because over 95% of former NFL players have a neurodegenerative condition called CTE, and this preventable disease is caused by tackles.

Before you get too knotted up about the idea of limiting kids’ time with the pigskin, let’s take a few minutes to walk through some of the history of American football and how safety regulations in the early 1900s saved the game.


A football on the gridiron. Photo:

1. Football Is An American Pastime

For many people in America, there is nothing quite like a Friday or Saturday night football game to get their blood flowing and their hearts racing. Attending a football game is about more than cheering on a particular team. It’s about the spectacle – the lights, the marching band, the cheerleaders, the drill team.

And for those who are playing the game, it is more than just a game. It is a representation of the strength of the school or even of the city. While other high school and college sports teams – like swimming, soccer, and baseball – certainly draw their own crowds, for many, the football team is the face of the school.

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2. For Many, NFL Football Is The Highlight Of The Week

Many families have their football teams of choice. For some, it’s the Dallas Cowboys. For others, it’s the Miami Dolphins. For others, it’s the New Orleans Saints. When people live in the vicinity of a professional football team – like in New Orleans – their loyalty for that team can be significantly magnified.

It’s hard to imagine American life without football as a regular part of it. So it may come as a shock that some NFL players are advocating for stricter rules on tackle football, especially for kids under the age of 14. For die-hard football fans, it sounds like they are impeding on a meaningful aspect of American culture.

Football player James Butler. Photo:

3. Football Derives From The British Game Of Rugby

Rugby is a ball game that has long been popular in the United Kingdom, along with the UK’s own version of “football,” what Americans know as soccer. American football emerged as a hybrid of soccer and rugby towards the end of the nineteenth century.

One early version was known as the “Boston Game,” played by colleges in the Boston area. McGill University, located in Montreal, had a team that played its own version of the rugby-soccer hybrid, which became more beloved by American teams than the “Boston Game.”

A football game. Photo:

4. Football Originated Among Ivy League Schools

The first game that can be recognized as a football match was played in New Brunswick, New Jersey on November 6, 1869. The two teams involved were from Princeton University and Rutgers University. The game quickly spread in popularity among elite colleges and universities along the Eastern Seaboard.

One school that picked up the game was Harvard University in Boston, though, for a while, it preferred the Boston Game to what became known as American football. By 1875, though, it was playing football against its arch-rival, Yale University. The rivalry continues to this day.

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5. The Father Of American Football Was From Yale

Does American football sound a bit too refined right now, considering it originated from a British sport and was played mostly at Ivy League schools? The story gets better. The person most responsible for laying down many of the rules that still govern American football was Walter Camp, a graduate of Yale.

The camp was responsible for determining how scoring is decided, introduced the scrimmage line, and made the requirement that after so many downs, the offensive team has to give up the ball if it has not gained enough yardage. He also coached the Yale team for several years, first as team captain while playing as a halfback and later when he was no longer on the team.

Football player Ryan Clark. Photo:

6. Football Quickly Moved Out Of The Ivy League

Prep school boys in Ivy League cities – such as New Haven, Boston, and New York – quickly took up football as a way of getting rid of some of their excessive energy. And in 1892, what could be considered the first professional football game was played.

The Allegheny Athletic Association of Pennsylvania played against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club; Allegheny won. What was momentous about the game, which was actually somewhat lackluster, is that William “Pudge” Heffelfinger was paid $500 to play for Allegheny. This made him the first-ever professional football player in American history.

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7. The Game Began To Change Around 1905

Football quickly earned a reputation as a rather violent sport. In fact, dozens of players died on the gridiron every year. Players had pretty much no protective equipment, and the far-from-stringent rules made it rather easy for someone to tackle a player violently. Plays were designed after Napoleonic warfare tactics. In fact, football was seen as a way of training soldiers for the military!

President Theodore Roosevelt was heavily responsible for the football reforms that came in the first few years of the 20th century. As an advocate of the Ivy League schools, he wanted to preserve the game while making it less dangerous. One reform was stricter requirements on the scrimmage line. Another change was that players had to wear protective gear, including helmets.

Football player Jack Crawford. Photo:

8. Calls For Football Reform Are Part Of A Long Tradition

You could say that American football has been evolving for centuries. It began as rugby, which merged with soccer to form a hybrid in which players could either pass the ball (by throwing it) or kick it. It turned into a free-for-all that seemed to help rambunctious boys get rid of their energy, but that became a bit too violent for the public to stomach.

It has undergone numerous reform processes to help standardize the game (like the rules that Walter Camp introduced) and make it safer (like the reforms of Teddy Roosevelt). To think that calls to abolish tackle football for kids is against the nature or spirit of football is to have a short-sighted view of this all-American sport.

The scrimmage line. Photo:

9. Reforms Helped The Game Become Even More Popular

In 1905, right before Teddy Roosevelt helped push for football reforms, there were calls to abolish the sport altogether. Walter Camp was also part of the process, as he helped create a new set of rules for the players at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale to abide by. Camp’s efforts paved the way for the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States.

Today, the Intercollegiate Athletic Association is known as the National Collegiate Athletic Association or NCAA. With the standardization of rules that promote player safety, calls to abolish the game diminished, and its popularity skyrocketed.

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10. Reforms Could Help Save American Football Again

Lots of parents nowadays are worried about their children playing tackle football. Instead, they are opting for less violent sports, like baseball and soccer. And those parents aren’t alone – retired NFL players are calling for reforms to football that call for an end to tackle football for children aged 13 and under.

There are concerns that the whiplash created by tackles is harming children’s developing bodies. They are not strong enough to be able to withstand the way that the brain shakes when their heads bob back and forth. Doing away with tackle football for children could actually help preserve the game.

A player getting tackled. Photo:

11. Many Football Players Have Sustained TBIs From Tackle Football

A TBI is a traumatic brain injury. It can be caused by a single event, like a terrible car accident, or by repeated injuries, like being tackled hundreds of times. One particular condition that has been developing among retired football players is known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE.

CTE is a degenerative condition that causes progressive damage to the brain, including dementia. People who suffer from it may develop depression, aggression, and generalized disorientation. Many of the players who are speaking out against tackle football for kids suffer from CTE.

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12. Nick Buoniconti Is Leading The Charge

Buoniconti played for the Miami Dolphins and led them to three Super Bowls, including two wins, and an undefeated season in 1972. He is a member of the NFL Hall of Fame, and he also may have CTE because of the injuries that he sustained playing tackle football. The 77-year-old NFL retiree also has dementia.

He began playing tackle football when he was nine years old and credited his neurodegenerative conditions to the injuries that he sustained. In his words, “I made the mistake starting tackle football at nine years old. Now, CTE has taken my life away. Youth tackle football is all risk with no reward.”

Football can get dangerous. Photo:

13. Another Player Is Harry Carson

Like Buoniconti, Harry Caron is in the NFL Hall of Fame. The former linebacker played for the New York Giants, and he refused to allow his grandson to play tackle football until he was 14 years old. In his words, “I believe it is not an appropriate sport for young children.”

Carson has injuries, which could include CTE, associated with the multiple concussions that he experienced from playing professional football. He is calling for parents not to allow their children to play football before they are in high school, at the earliest.

College football scrimmage line. Photo:

14. The Vast Majority Of NFL Players Have Brain Injuries

Ninety-one former NFL players have donated their brains to science, often because they experienced symptoms associated with TBIs and CTE. Of the 91 brains that were studied, fully 87 had CTE. This means that NFL players may have a 96% chance of developing the condition.

Of course, the sample of brains probably includes those from individuals who were most concerned about how the sport had damaged their cognition; there are probably plenty of pro football players who have not experienced the same concerns. But these statistics are alarming and have raised calls for reforms not only among children’s football but also within the NFL.

Pigskin on the gridiron. Photo:

15. John Mackey Died After Developing Dementia

John Mackey was a tight end for the San Diego Chargers and Baltimore Colts for many years. In his later years, he developed frontotemporal dementia, a debilitating disease that affects both cognition and behavior. It can lead to aggressive outbursts and diminished physical ability.

After his death in 2011, his brain was examined and found to have signs of CTE. It may have been the underlying cause of his frontotemporal dementia, which became progressively worse. He is one of many, many football players whose life was severely diminished because of the brain injuries that he sustained from being tackled repeatedly.

Opposing football players. Photo:

16. Ray Easterling, Who Had CTE, Committed Suicide

Easterling played 83 games for the Atlanta Falcons throughout eight seasons. In 2011, he was part of a cohort of other NFL players who sued the NFL for its failure in addressing concussion-related injuries. He died the next year, at the age of 62, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Easterling had long struggled with depression, likely a result of dementia caused by multiple concussions. His autopsy revealed that he had CTE; the condition was probably responsible for his dementia, which caused destabilizing thoughts and inability to focus his attention or relate to people.

Opposing football players. Photo:

17. Brett Favre May Have CTE

Brett Favre was an NFL superstar who carried the Green Bay Packers to Super Bowl victory. A native of Mississippi, he played football in his hometown of Kiln before playing for the varsity team at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. He was soon drafted for the NFL, where he played for two decades.

In 2013, two years after his retirement, the Saint Louis Rams, who were plagued with injuries, asked Favre to return to the NFL. He declined, stating that he was experiencing memory problems that likely are a result of repeated football injuries. He also reported that he had played many games while suffering from concussions.

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18. Hundreds Of Players Have Sued the NFL

There aren’t just a few isolated instances of former NFL players reporting symptoms of brain injuries. Instead, brain injuries and CTE seem to be the norm, not the exception. Literally, thousands of NFL players have experienced the same problem, and they have brought suits against the NFL.

In 2013, the NFL settled with approximately 4500 players and their estates, if the players themselves were deceased. The settlement represents an acknowledgment by the authority on professional football that the game is dangerous and causes both life-inhibiting and life-limiting injuries.

Football gridiron. Photo:

19. One Of The Plaintiffs Was Greg Boyd

Greg Boyd was a defensive lineman for teams like the New England Patriots and the San Francisco 49ers for nine seasons. In 1984, he helped carry his team to victory in the Super Bowl. Tragically, in the years since, he has suffered debilitating effects of brain injuries that could be consistent with CTE.

Notably absent from the list of plaintiffs is Troy Aikman, who claimed that, despite his numerous concussions, he never felt that he was at risk of long-term injury. Aikman may be the exception to the rule, but only time will tell if he, too, will fall victim to CTE or a related condition.

Football player getting tackled. Photo:

20. Ken Stabler Was A Prominent Victim Of CTE

Ken Stabler was a one-time MVP who died in July of 2015 after a debilitating struggle with CTE. His brain was so severely atrophied that researchers who performed the autopsy were able to spot the signs of CTE without any professional equipment. The curtain that divides the brain’s two hemispheres, in Stabler’s case, was completely torn.

Beginning in his fifties, Stabler had experienced challenges with impulse control and headaches. He died of cancer, but physicians believe that had he lived longer, he would have certainly developed dementia. His death highlighted the blight of CTE on the NFL.

The injuries caused by tackling are debilitating. Photo:

21. CTE Doesn’t Only Cause Concussions

Repeated hits from tackles, rather than multiple concussions, may be the underlying cause of CTE, according to many researchers. According to one researcher, “As highlighted in this recent study, repetitive hits to the head have been consistently implicated as a cause of CTE by this research group. How and why exactly this manifests, who is at risk, and why — these are questions that we as researchers and clinicians are working to answer.”

And another researcher points out, “The NFL is setting a bad example by focusing on the concussion and while not focusing on the hits.” The massive lawsuit that was settled in 2013 was about concussion-related injuries, but the real culprit may actually be the tackles.

The glory of pro football comes with a price. Photo:

22. It Can Begin In Childhood

Any hits to the head can induce CTE, especially repeated blows, like the ones sustained in tackle football. Though the disease may not manifest until middle age and can only be diagnosed after death, it can begin as soon as children start playing tackle football.

As previously mentioned, children’s bodies are not strong enough to sustain the impact of tackles. They can create whiplash and cause the brain to shake inside the head, which causes damage to it. Nick Buoniconti began playing tackle football at the age of nine, and he believes that that is the reason he developed CTE.

A children’s football team. Photo:

23. Nearly One Million Children Under 12 Play Tackle Football

Every year, hundreds of thousands of parents register their children to play the great American sport of football. While there are growing numbers of leagues that play touch football or flag football, the vast majority of children still play tackle football. In 2016, 982,000 children between the ages of 6 through 12 were registered to play tackle football.

Most children play less dangerous sports, like basketball, soccer, and baseball. However, the percentages of kids playing those sports are dropping, while the portions of kids playing tackle football are going up.

Another football player getting tackled. Photo:

24. The American Academy of Pediatrics Is Advocating for Stricter Rules

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness made a statement in 2015 regarding the dangers of playing tackle football. While it noted that most injuries are minor, there is a higher proportion of children who face catastrophic injuries, like concussions, than in other sports.

The organization recommended that coaches be stricter about safety rules, such as head-first tackling. It also recommended delaying the age at which children begin tackling to decrease the risk of severe injuries, and playing other forms of football, like flag football, instead.

The injuries from tackle football are real. Photo:

25. But Parental Advocacy Is Not Where It Needs To Be

Despite the risks associated with tackle football – not only CTE but also spinal cord injuries and concussions – and calls for reform, parents still seem to be enthusiastic about enrolling their children in tackle football leagues.

Organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics, along with NFL players, can call for reforms. However, the culture of safety has to begin with parents, who often double as coaches for children’s sports teams. Without their support for more stringent regulations on children’s football and safety, stricter rules probably won’t happen.

Pro football players falling over each other. Photo:

26. The Concussion Legacy Foundation Is Trying To Fill In The Gaps

According to the Concussion Legacy Foundation, an estimated 3.8 million concussions occur each year, but only one out of every six are diagnosed. The number of concussions that happen to people who are playing tackle football is far out of proportion.

The best way to stop these concussions is to set stricter regulations on tackling in American football. They are leading an education initiative called “Flag Football Under 14.” The goal is to educate parents on the long-term dangers of children playing tackle football and to play flag football as an alternative.

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27. So Are Retired NFL Players

NFL legends like Harry Carson, Nick Buoniconti, and Phil Villapiano are teaming up with The Concussion Legacy Foundation to help bolster its efforts. To help them are researchers from Boston University who are studying the effects of tackling long-term brain health.

According to Villapiano, “At some point, those of us who have had success in this game must speak up to protect both football players and the future of the game, and supporting ‘Flag Football Under 14’ is our best way to do that.” Without regulations for children, these players are concerned that the great American pigskin will lose its place in culture.

One player is already down. Photo:

28. CTE Can Begin Early In Life

CTE is not necessarily caused by concussions. In fact, researchers working with the NFL players call concussions the “red herring” of CTE because they get all the attention but are not the cause. The cause is repeated injuries, such as bobbling of the head caused by tackling, that cause the brain to shake inside the skull.

What is particularly concerning is that within 24 hours of sustaining a football-related injury, the brain can begin to show differences. This is particularly concerning for children, whose brains are still developing. The effects of repeated injuries from playing football in elementary school can be amplified.

Bloody noses are not all you need to worry about. Photo:

29. But Under 14 Regulations May Not Fix The Problem

When children are playing football in high school, they are being tackled by more prominent, more massive players. The effects of those tackles are increased simply because much more force is exerted. According to one researcher, “The real exposure to larger players, higher velocity hits and hundreds of hits starts in high school.”

There may need to be broader reforms within the NFL, as well, to help reduce the startlingly high number of players who suffer from CTE. The NFL has been making some changes, such as the amount of head-to-head contact that occurs. But researchers believe that these small changes are not enough.

Players can be injured without getting a concussion. Photo:

30. Focusing On Concussions Is Not Solving The Problem

According to one Boston University researcher, “We will never prevent CTE by focusing on concussions. Any meaningful prevention campaign has to focus on preventing all hits to the head, including sub-concussive impacts.” But so far, the NFL is keeping its focus on concussions.

What really needs to happen is regulations that limit the number of hits that occur. The easiest way to do that is to raise the age at which kids playing football can start being tackled. But there may need to be broader reforms to help prevent NFL players from developing CTE.

Keeping your kid off the gridiron might not be the answer. Photo:

31. So What Are Parents To Do?

Of course, parents want to protect their children, but refusing to allow them to play football hardly seems like a solution. Parents who are concerned about CTE and other injuries that can occur from tackle football need to work with their children on alternatives to tackle football.

There are plenty of alternatives available; tackle football is by no means the only sport that kids want to play. And keep in mind that kids can still throw and kick a football back and forth to each other without tackling.

Flag football carries all of the fun with minimal risk. Photo:

32. Flag Football Is A Viable Alternative

Flag football is a variation of the game in which players wear belts that have “flags” on them. Instead of tackling, the players have to run up behind each other and pull the flags off the belts. If a flag is removed, the player may as well have been tackled and is down for the rest of the play.

By playing flag football, kids are able to get all of the exercise that they would while playing tackle football. They can also develop better hand-eye coordination because of how they are still throwing and kicking the ball. The difference is that because they are not tackled, the risk of injuries is significantly reduced.

New Zealanders have adopted touch football. Photo:

33. Another Alternative Is Touch Football

Touch football is another variation of great American football. In touch football, coming up behind a player from the other team and touching him or her is logistically the same as tackling. The player is considered down for the rest of the play.

Like flag football, touch football has all of the benefits with significantly reduced risks, as there is virtually no danger of concussions. As a bonus, with touch and flag football, kids don’t need to wear the same protective equipment that they need for tackle football. They can get out and play on a hot summer day when it might otherwise be too warm to wear protective gear.

There are much safer ways to play the game. Photo:

34. If There Are No Flag Or Touch Football Leagues, Consider Starting One

If you live in an urban or suburban area, there are probably children’s football leagues that your children can register for. But if there are no football leagues that don’t do tackling, you can work in your community to create one. After all, most children’s sports teams are led by parents.

If you know other concerned parents who don’t want their children playing tackle football, they may be willing to partner with you by volunteering to coach teams in a league. Talking with local politicians, like city council members, can boost credibility and visibility so that other families will express interest. You can also get corporate sponsors.

As long as they are safe and active. Photo:

35. If Nothing Else, Play Other Sports

If your kids insist that they only want to play tackle football, not flag or touch football, you can always put them in different sports. Basketball season occurs in the fall, same as football season, so you can get your kids to shoot hoops instead of knocking each other to the ground and give each other concussions.

You can also get them involved in dance, as there are many different types of dance that they can choose from. Or they can play soccer, baseball, volleyball, or any of a number of other sports that have a significantly lower risk of injuries. And if nothing else, get outside with them and throw the good ole American pigskin with them.

Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

“Who invented football?” by History Staff. August 22, 2018.
“Birth of Pro Football.” Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“Tait Meyer-1905 College Football Crisis and Reform.” Washington State University.
“87 of 91 tested ex-NFL players had brain disease linked to head trauma,” by Jason Hanna, Debra Goldschmidt, and Kevin Flower. CNN Health. October 11, 2015.
“List of NFL players with chronic traumatic encephalopathy.” Wikipedia.
“Ray Easterling.” Wikipedia.
“Brett Favre.” Wikipedia.
“Greg Boyd.” Wikipedia.
“Ex-NFL player Ken Stabler had concussion disease CTE, doctor says,” by Ashley Fantz. CNN Health. February 4, 2016.
“Former NFLers call for end to tackle football for kids,” by Nadia Kounang. CNN Health. March 1, 2018.
“Would you let your child play football?” by Victoria Larned. CNN Health. November 8, 2017.