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JAMA Releases New Study on High School Football and Cognitive Impairment

By Joe Ginley '12, 07/30/19, 11:15AM EDT


The sport of football has recently been plagued with concerns about safety and concussions. But recent research is showing that playing high school football is not linked to long-term brain injuries or depression.  

A study by Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Neurology has found no link between playing high school football and "cognitive impairment and depression."

The study, available online here, examined data from 2,692 Wisconsin high school graduate men with an average age of 64 years who played football in 1957. Controlling for adolescent IQ, family background, and educational level, the research team compared "cognitive and psychological well-being assessments" of 834 men who played football against 1,858 men who did not. 

The study found that "there was no statistically or clinically significant harmful association between playing football in high school and increased cognitive impairment or depression later in life, on average."

The authors of the study also wrote, "cognitive and depression outcomes later in life were found to be similar for high school football players and their nonplaying counterparts from mid-1950s in Wisconsin. The risks of playing football today might be different than in the 1950s, but for current athletes, this study provides information on the risk of playing sports today that have a similar risk of head trauma as high school football played in the 1950s."

The study is groundbreaking, according to the Wildcats' head football coach, Chuck Kyle '69. 

"Certainly everyone is aware of the conversations about concussions and CTE, the idea of brain disruptions and how they accumulate over the years to create some issues," Kyle said. "Some of the studies that have come out made a strong statement against football, but when people asked to see the research, it was limited, in my opinion. You always hear from other doctors, 'We need so much more research.' But people were reacting strongly. This study is by JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, which has been in existence since the 1880s, so it's extremely reputable.

"Yes, there is a lot of talk out there, but this is from a very reputable medical association with a study far more involved than what others have had," he continued. "Certainly, there is a lot more research to do, but this is a huge study. I want it to be seen by football parents and non-football parents out there. Let's get better studies and research, and this one gets us headed in the right direction."

Obviously, the brand of football played in the 1950s is different from the game played today. But modern advances in technology have provided much safer helmets, practice regimens, and tackling techniques not used in the 1950s. Players may be bigger, but the techniques and the coaching are far advanced. All of this information led the study to state that the risks of playing are similar as in the 1950s. 

"With the research that's being done, the helmet helps to absorb more kinds of hits, including when you hit the ground. There's more technology within the helmet to soften the blow, which is good," Kyle said. "Besides equipment, in the last 10-15 years, a lot of work has been done in researching blocking and tackling, and finding out what position a player should be when blocking or when making a tackle, so they're protecting their head and getting their head out of the way. For a while, it became romantic in the game to lead with the head. People have realized that that was not right."

Kyle has played a large role in Northeast Ohio in making the game safer both at Saint Ignatius and with the Cleveland Browns as the team's youth football advisor.

Through this role, Kyle has talked to some of the foremost experts in the field of health and football. His approach to practice has changed significantly as a result.

"I've been studying it. I spend three days a year at a conference with a bunch of people who do research each year," Kyle explained. "We do work to make adjustments in techniques and finding non-contact drills to teach very effective blocking and tackling. That's come a long way in the last 10-15 years. There's a lot to be done, but this study helps in painting a picture of what's going on. Parents are welcome to come to our football practice. They'll see that there is not much full-out hitting that goes on anymore. Parents think back 25-30 years ago when, yes, there was a lot of live scrimmaging. That's not happening anymore. There will be some small periods where we'll say, 'Go ahead and take the guy to the ground.' But by far, not as much anymore."

This study is very significant in the world of high school football. It just might change perceptions about the safety of the game.

But the work is far from over. 

"There is still more research to be done. We need to take a look at these men, 'Did they play football before high school?' I would like to see that, because there was a lot of grade school football in the 1960s," Kyle said. "Studies say the youth brain is still formulating, so when should contact start? I think all sports need to have that kind of information, there are many sports that will have bouncing and jarring of the brain. A lot more research still needs to be done."