A young boy in a football uniform stares at the camera.

Image: Shutterstock

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a tremendous problem in contact sports, and it’s taking a toll on youth athletes around the country. CTE, a progressive degenerative disorder, is found in people who’ve suffered brain trauma—people like football players, wrestlers, or those who participate in other contact sports. Now that a connection between contact sport-induced head trauma and CTE has been confirmed and acknowledged by the NFL, parents want youth sports’ rules revised to prevent more brain damage.

CTE causes Alzheimer’s-like symptoms including memory loss and can also result in aggression and even suicide. Symptoms tend to appear eight to ten years after experiencing repetitive brain trauma. Headaches and dizziness can ensue, and dementia eventually sets in and progresses. Muscular movements are compromised as well as ocular ones.

CTE has damaged the health and careers of professional NFL players Junior Seau and Dave Duerson; and following his 2015 death by cancer, an announcement was made about Ken Stabler’s struggle with CTE. The disease appears to be more rampant in contact sports than was initially believed, so more athletes could suffer from it than we realize.

“At least at this early stage, [CTE] seems to be much more common than anybody imagined. That’s kind of what we’ve been afraid of for a while…I think we have a significant problem that’s getting bigger as we see how this pathology is more common,” says Dr. Walter Koroshetz, director of the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Now, some parents are looking for ways to protect their children from CTE, which many of them acquire through school sports. Karen Zegel’s son Patrick Risha started playing football when he was just 10 years old with hopes of playing professionally, but by his junior year of high school, the symptoms of CTE had already set in. Patrick committed suicide several years later at 32, and his autopsy revealed the development of the brain disease, which can only be diagnosed post-mortem.

Zegel and another parent whose son also suffered CTE, Kimberly Archie, are working together to tell Congress they don’t want children under 14 participating in contact spots. Young people are especially susceptible to brain trauma both because their bodies are more fragile and because their emotions are still developing.

Currently, USA Football, the organization that governs youth football, has limited full contact to only 30 minutes per game—but that could still be enough time to sustain a head injury.