Should Kids be Allowed to Play Tackle Football – or Fantasy Football?

Adults spend quite a bit of time and energy attempting to make the world safer for children. We have mandated that children sit in car seats until they are 80 pounds, 49 inches tall, or 8 years old. We keep them inside and don’t allow them to roam neighborhoods because of fears of predators and other people who might harm them (although the rates of abuse, child abduction, and other horrible things that happen to children have gone down dramatically over the past 50 years). We are also in an era in which tackle football is being prohibited for younger children, and adults are working to improve the safety standards for older children who play tackle football. Given the new data we have on the impact of concussions, I agree with the approach that younger kids should not be allowed to play football.  However, we’ve also taken fantasy football away from children, which makes no sense to me whatsoever.

We no longer have any popular leagues designed for kids to play fantasy football. (For those of you unfamiliar with fantasy football/sports, participants select professional players and compete against each other based upon their accumulated statistics.) The stated reason that many organizations (ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo, NFL) dropped their kids’ fantasy football programs was that it encouraged gambling and manipulated kids into fandom. While there were legitimate concerns that the NFL, in its infinite wisdom and efforts at marketing, had targeted children with fantasy football programs to build a new generation of fans, the backlash against fantasy football for children as a form of gambling seems to me to be misdirected. Perhaps this is because I enjoy fantasy football and have experienced many years of participating in fantasy football leagues with my (now grown-up) children. Beyond that, fantasy football and other fantasy sports are a way for kids to share an interest with their parents.

This type of family connection still exists. Many adults form family and friends leagues in order to include their children. But children who want to get involved in fantasy football on their own can no longer can go to the NFL, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, or Yahoo and join a kids league where they would have opportunities for reading; improving math skills; and learning skills such as flexibility, planning, and self-control in managing their fantasy team.

So how are we protecting kids by taking away the opportunity to engage in fantasy football? As I have written in the past, kids don’t get concussions playing fantasy football. The benefits of fantasy football for socialization, communication, and building friendships and family relationships is evident to anyone who plays. The academic and cognitive benefits of fantasy people are also quite clear. Participants need to consider probabilities, balance risks and rewards, and at a basic level understand the numerical nature of the game. Beyond that, judgment is necessary:  players must check their emotions so that a Patriots fan such as myself doesn’t draft Tom Brady in the first-round (take my word, it’s bad fantasy football strategy) just to make sure he’s on my team.

Fantasy football requires a variety of executive-functioning skills. Planning is used when considering the makeup of a team and flexibility when a player that you wanted to draft is picked before your turn to pick. Sustained focus and persistence are necessary over the course of the year to ensure that one’s team is not playing a number of injury-riddled players.

How does abolishing kids fantasy football leagues protect them? One might argue that fantasy sports will encourage kids to play real football, and evidence from kids playing sports video games does suggest that those kids tend to play more real sports. However, the more important issue is to make playing football safer for kids and adults. We have increasingly been seeing the risk of concussions for children playing football and many other sports and need to balance with the rewards of play. Playing football, soccer, lacrosse, field hockey, basketball, or any other contact sport increases the risk of injury but also provides opportunities to develop close relationships with others on teams, follow directions from coaches, learn skills such as persistence and sustained attention to tasks, and enhance physical fitness. However, from my perspective as a neuropsychologist who occasionally evaluates kids with concussions, there is much more that we can do. Training coaches about concussions and requiring better equipment to protect young people’s heads and brains will be important. Making the age of entry into tackle football much older has also been demonstrated to reduce concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

My suggestion is that parents encourage their kids to play flag or fantasy football and not tackle football. Far more important than the fantasy sports I describe in this article are real-world opportunities for physical exercise that promote brain development. Consider football for teenagers, but know the risks. Try to get younger children interested in a variety of sports but allow them to play fantasy sports that practice a variety of academic, social-emotional, and executive-functioning skills. This type of hands-on practice in a game-like environment is often the best way to get kids to learn new skills. They can have fun using math skills and become engaged in the competitive nature of fantasy sports in which they use executive-functioning skills such as planning, flexibility, sustained effort, and attention.

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