CTE, youth football team up for dangerous combination

SALT LAKE CITY – After studying the brains of almost 250 football players, Boston University's School of Medicine and the VA Boston Healthcare System are sounding a warning for parents of young football players.

Rowen Ball, 11, is a soccer player. But that wasn't his first choice. 

"When he turned 8 or 9, he really, really wanted to play full-contact football. (I) just couldn't let him do that," said Jason Ball, Rowen's father.  

Rowen had already had two concussions, and his father didn't want to risk him suffering more. 

"I understood most of it, because my dad would explain it a lot to me when I always asked him if I could play, which was a lot," Rowen said.

In a new study out of Boston, researchers examined the brains of 246 football players. The study revealed that 211 of the players had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease. 

The researchers found that the risk of developing CTE increased for those who started playing football before age 12. 

"That younger age of first exposure appears to increase vulnerability to the effects of CTE and other brain diseases, meaning it influences when cognitive, behavioral and mood symptoms begin," said researcher Michael Alosco.

Dr. Vernon B. Williams, director of the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic, warns not to draw conclusions prematurely.

"I don't ignore this information, but I think it's only a piece of the information, and it needs to be considered in the context of the bigger picture. And in the context of what we don't yet know," Williams said.

Williams said today's players have better helmets and safety measures than players in the study did. 

Still, Jason Ball doesn't regret keeping Rowen out of contact football.

"I love my boys, and I want them to have the same quality of life they have now as they do in their 40s and in their 60s," he said.

Alosco cautions that this is a single study but also said kids whose brains are developing shouldn't be hitting their heads repeatedly. 

He also said parents should make sure that their children's coaches are minimizing risk and repeated hits to the head and they should know the signs of a concussion.