JESSICA HALLORAN

Con­cus­sion cru­sader says tackling should be out­lawed un­til age 14

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - SPORT - JESSICA HALLORAN

Should tackling be out­lawed from kids footy codes?

As con­cus­sion cru­sader Chris Nowin­ski puts it, there is never a good enough rea­son to hit a child in the head hun­dreds of times for a sport. Nowin­ski also tells this col­umn that chil­dren shouldn’t be play­ing tackle foot­ball un­til age 14. Nowin­ski is a for­mer Har­vard foot­baller, WWE wrestler and is co­founder and CEO of the Con­cus­sion Legacy Foundation. He helped As­so­ciate Pro­fes­sor Michael Buck­land launch Aus­tralian Sports Brain Bank at the RPA Hospital last year.

When news broke last week that the brain dis­ease Chronic Trau­matic En­cephalopa­thy was found in two rugby league play­ers’ brains by Buck­land, my mind drifted to the kids col­lid­ing on our lo­cal sports grounds.

Kids of all codes, who chase the footy around on a win­ter’s morn­ing for the love it, the ones who are play­ing tackle footy well be­fore the age of 14.

In rugby, kids can tackle and par­tic­i­pate in li­ne­outs from un­der-8s.

In ju­nior Aus­tralian rules, play­ers can be­gin to tackle from age 11.

When I tell Nowin­ski that ju­nior rugby league kids can tackle in the un­der-6s, he is slightly taken aback.

“I didn’t think kids were play­ing tackle that young,” he says. “You are talk­ing to some­one who played col­lege foot­ball, was a pro­fes­sional wrestler, let peo­ple hit me in the head with chairs. I am all for con­tact, but not with what we have learned. I would never al­low my child to be tack­led or to tackle other chil­dren. It’s just not fair to them in my opin­ion.

“Your fine-mo­tor skills de­velop very slowly. The idea of ask­ing a child to use proper form and tackle safely at five years old, is a fool’s er­rand.”

The ma­jor footy codes are work­ing hard to mod­ify, mon­i­tor and make the game safer at the elite and ju­nior lev­els.

This sea­son, the NRL has been stricter on con­cus­sion pro­to­cols and aware with a ‘spot­ter’ in the bunker and on the side­line. The most in

nocu­ous head knock of­ten now is be­ing con­sid­ered for a HIA (Head In­jury As­sess­ment).

But the ques­tion for all codes is why do we still al­low kids below the age of 14 to tackle if it is con­sid­ered so dan­ger­ous by a man such as Nowin­ski, a driv­ing force be­hind re­search into con­cus­sion. Is it time to re­con­sider tackling in ju­nior footy?

“If you are old enough, 18 or older, you un­der­stand the risks of play­ing a dan­ger­ous sport,” Nowin­ski says.

“The same risk and re­ward equa­tion is not the same for chil­dren. They are not get­ting paid to play dan­ger­ous sports. They can’t pos­si­bly un­der­stand the risks they ex­pose them­selves to. We have to look at whether or not kids should be do­ing the same risky ac­tiv­i­ties that could cause CTE.

“There should be a con­ver­sa­tion around when you can start tackling in any sport be­cause tackling even­tu­ally re­sults in head trauma.”

Nowin­ski who has a PhD in be­havioural neu­ro­science, which he achieved af­ter con­cus­sions when a col­lege foot­ball player and pro wrestler ended his ath­letic ca­reer, says there are many rea­sons why it’s bet­ter for kids not to be in­volved in col­li­sion sports.

He said the age 14 makes sense in the US be­cause high school sports are bet­ter regulated; by that age there are doc­tors on the side­lines mon­i­tor­ing con­cus­sion.

“Then there are biome­chan­i­cal rea­sons: your head grows be­fore your body grows,” Nowin­ski says. “Be­fore age 14, most chil­dren are not in a weight room so they don’t grow phys­i­cal strength, the neck strength to pro­tect them­selves.

“We’ve learnt a lot about brain de­vel­op­ment and the worst time to hit a de­vel­op­ing brain is be­tween the ages of 8 and 13. (If the brain is hit be­tween those ages), you are prob­a­bly al­ter­ing who that child be­comes …” SHORTLY af­ter news broke of the two rugby league play­ers who played more than 150 first-grade games had suf­fered CTE, Par­ra­matta Eels great Peter Ster­ling said he would be do­nat­ing his brain for re­search to “help” find out more about the im­pact of the sport he played for 220 first-grade games.

For­mer St Kilda cham­pion Nick Riewoldt also said he would do­nate his brain af­ter he died for re­search into the ef­fects of con­cus­sion.

Be­fore last week, the only pre­vi­ous case of CTE iden­ti­fied in an Aus­tralian ath­lete was that of rugby player Barry ‘Tizza’ Tay­lor, whose brain was sent to Bos­ton for anal­y­sis in 2013. CTE can only be con­firmed via your brain be­ing ex­am­ined in a post-mortem.

The po­ten­tial signs of CTE are problems with think­ing and mem­ory, per­son­al­ity changes and be­havioural changes in­clud­ing ag­gres­sion and de­pres­sion. In older peo­ple, it can be in­dis­tin­guish­able from Alzheimer’s dis­ease.

In 2013, Carl­ton great Greg ‘Diesel’ Wil­liams told a cur­rent af­fairs show he sus­pected he had CTE.

“They (foot­ball ad­min­is­tra­tors) have been in de­nial on this, that it doesn’t ex­ist, it’s just bull­shit,’’ he told Chan­nel 7.

This year, it was re­ported Ade­laide lawyer Greg Grif­fin was lead­ing a law­suit on be­half of a group of for­mer AFL play­ers, in­clud­ing Gee­long champ John Barnes and Hawthorn great Johnny Plat­ten, that is set to be filed against the AFL.

It is ex­pected to al­lege that the AFL breached its duty of care by allowing play­ers to rou­tinely re­turn to the field on the day and the fol­low­ing week fol­low­ing a ‘se­ri­ous hit’.

Two for­mer first-grade NRL play­ers, James McManus and Brett Horsnell, are locked in le­gal bat­tles with the game over the long-term im­pact of con­cus­sions.

Nowin­ski says it’s “be­come clear” over the past decade from the re­search con­ducted on Amer­i­can foot­ballers, that the risk of hav­ing CTE ap­pears cor­re­lated with how many years they play tackle foot­ball.

“I am a for­mer pro­fes­sional wrestler, I un­der­stand and sup­port adults do­ing a dan­ger­ous job, to en­ter­tain the pub­lic and make a lot of money,” Nowin­ski says.

“But what we are deal­ing with in the United States is the best NFL play­ers of all time are the most likely to have CTE be­cause they have the long­est ca­reers.

“I would urge ev­ery­one in­volved in sport to recog­nise this week’s news as an op­por­tu­nity to change the fu­ture.

“You have to start hav­ing that con­ver­sa­tion around, ‘what age you should start tackling’?”

In an ar­ti­cle for Vox last year, Nowin­ski quoted “exposure data” that shows chil­dren as young as nine are get­ting hit in the head more than 500 times in one sea­son of youth tackle foot­ball in the US.

“That should not feel nor­mal to us,” Nowin­ski wrote. “Think of the last time, out­side of sports, you al­lowed your child to get hit hard in the head 25 times in a day. Bet­ter yet, when was the last time you were hit hard in the head?”

In rugby, kids can tackle and par­tic­i­pate in li­ne­outs from un­der-8s.

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