Hoge disputes research, proponent of tackle football for kids
By Greg Bach
In the long-running debate over the safety of tackle football for children another voice has entered the fray: former NFL running back Merril Hoge.
And his message is that tackle football is safe for children who want to play it.
Hoge, along with Dr. Peter Cummings, are the authors of Brainwashed: The Bad Science Behind CTE and the Plot to Destroy Football.
Hoge spent eight seasons in the NFL before his career was cut short after back-to-back concussions and improper treatment forced him into early retirement. He has coached thousands of kids in youth football through the years and has been a strong advocate for player safety, even testifying at a congressional hearing on football head injuries in 2009.
We spoke with Hoge about his book and what he wants parents of young athletes to know about contact sports:
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Why is it important for kids 8, 9 and 10 years old to play tackle football?
HOGE: I think it’s important that they know they can do that. I think what’s important is there is options. We have worked hard at making football available – not just tackle. There is flag and 7 on 7, so there are a lot of options. Some kids are just ready and more geared to tackle so why rob them of that opportunity? There is no scientific information whatsoever that says that that is going to be a problem if kids between ages 7-11 play contact football or contact sports. There is no scientific evidence of that. And that’s another reason to write the book – to help people understand the true facts and the science behind that. If they read the science papers, which I don’t expect people to do because they’re not going to go read science papers, and are they going to understand them if they read them? Probably not. I had people explain them to me after I read them. Actually, there’s a lot of work that says there is no scientific evidence that says there’s going to be the issues they say at ages 10 and 11, there’s no scientific evidence of that. There are a lot of articles that contradict that in a lot of ways and what does that tell you – that you can’t keep pointing at one thing and blaming one thing, you have to widen the scope. A lot of people don’t know about those other science papers, that’s why we did the book. It’s why it was important to have doctors and scientists explain those things where we truly are and to hopefully ease the fears that parents might have.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Do you see anything wrong with parents choosing to keep their kids out of youth tackle programs until high school?
HOGE: There are a lot of kids who want to play tackle football so why rob them of that opportunity if their parents feel confident and comfortable with it? I’m not saying they can or can’t play it, or shouldn’t play it. I’m just saying that there’s no scientific evidence that says that’s going to be a problem if they do. I go back to the science; I have asked those questions. Why that specific age? Why would you pick an age of 14 when what happens then? They go from 105 to 165, they hit puberty, and then the brain is not fully developed until age 25. Then why is the brain less important at age 14 then age 11 and 12? When you ask for the scientific proof that this is a problem there is none to show you. Especially when you read it in the paper it’s completely contradictory what the science is saying and I just find that to be absolutely dead wrong. People who write the science papers and then contradict what they say in the media I just think that’s evil; I think that hurts parents when kids are passionate about playing. I don’t know why it’s a doom and gloom thing. Why is it wrong that they do play? It shouldn’t be wrong and there’s no scientific evidence that says it is, and that’s why I really wrote the book because I help explain that. I do not ever believe I have the right to tell any parent what to do, I’m just giving them everything I know and have experienced, but every family has to make that choice.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: You’ve coached thousands of kids in youth football through the years and are a well-known proponent of practicing the right way. How have you handled that role?
HOGE: It started in 2003 because when my son wanted to start playing football the one thing I thought was how awesome that I got to create a better, safer environment. The way we went about practicing is that we practiced twice a week, and we had one live period for 15 minutes once every two weeks, even though every day the kids said they wanted to hit and tackle. There are a lot of ways you can teach, and it’s not just about tackling. Anybody who says that has obviously never coached. You have tackling, you have to learn how to take on a tackler, how to block and how to take on a block. There’s a litany of things that need to be taught, not just tackling. So I established how we would practice and created drills. I’ve coached thousands and thousands of kids. Football is a tough game for tough people but it’s also a smart game for intelligent people. If we get hurt we are going to do the right thing. And that’s when I established my protocol for head trauma. My kids knew right way that if you had any type of concussion or I thought there was a problem you were done – in practice or in a game you were not playing the next week.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: What do you hope that parents take away from the book?
HOGE: What I really hope is that we can have a real balanced understanding of the truth of science. I hope that parents have confidence now and feel a little more empowered – that they aren’t as scared as they once were and that they have more information. It might be that they don’t want their child playing and that’s fine. But this is how I look at it: every year coaching youth football I had a kid who didn’t want to be there. I could tell by the way he was stretching that he didn’t want to be here. So I would go over and talk to him and say ‘what do you want to do?’ Every sport is not for everybody – I get that. Football is not for everybody, but there are millions who love it. And why rob them of that opportunity? That is my real passion – we need to keep giving them the opportunity to keep growing it and making it better. We have girls playing more than ever. It is not tackle vs. flag either. It should be ‘here are the options’ and what fits best for my child?
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