NEW YORK — A former college football player suffering from early dementia was among those who urged New York state legislators on Tuesday to ban tackle football for children 12 and younger.
T.J. Abraham, who is now a doctor, testified before a state Assembly committee hearing in Manhattan about the brain damage he says has destroyed his medical practice and disrupted family life.
“There were many days in college I remember ‘seeing stars,’ the sky turning purple or orange, or vomiting due to a severe headache after a head-on collision,” said Abraham, 42. “At the time, I thought this was normal and was told by coaches to ‘suck it up.’”
Still a 6-foot-tall, 270-pound powerhouse decades after he stopped playing for Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Abraham was forced to stop working as a gynecologist last year because of a failing memory – he even forgot how to perform medical procedures he had done thousands of times. He would lose wallets, keys, important documents, and his way on the road while driving home to his wife and two children in Harborcreek, Pennsylvania.
“Thank God, no one got hurt or died as a result of my condition,” he said.
Abraham said his doctors blame football, which he played starting in elementary school.
The New York State Assembly’s health committee also heard medical, legal and sports experts speak about a possible ban. Lawmakers in Albany will consider the ban when they return to work in January.
The proposal follows a new study by the Boston University School of Medicine that found that children who play tackle football may develop cognitive, behavioral and mood problems, and that the more years young athletes play, the more likely they are to succumb to the degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
“Researchers discovered the single factor that best determined whether players would develop CTE was not how many concussions they suffered, but instead the number of years they played tackle football,” said Christopher Nowinski, a former Harvard football player who co-founded The Concussion Legacy Foundation, a nonprofit that raises awareness of the dangers of head injuries.
Attorney Michael Kaplen, who teaches a course on traumatic brain injury at George Washington University, said that allowing young children to participate in organized tackle football “is the equivalent of playing Russian roulette.”
“Evidence continues to accumulate that children who engage in tackle football have a greater risk of sustaining a life-altering brain injury,” Kaplen told members of the committee chaired by Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried.
Scott Hallenbeck, the executive director of USA Football, countered that his national governing body has made the sport safer than ever with protective measures.
Since 2012, he said, more than 700,000 youth and high school coaches have been certified for strict safety standards such as limiting the number of practices per week and how many minutes are allotted to full contact. In addition, improved helmets are being used to reduce the impact of collisions while children are coached to avoid head-first tackling in favor of shoulder-first moves.
“Parents do not want their government telling them when their kids can play football,” Hallenbeck said. “Instead, they want to make informed decisions for themselves; parents need information and options in order to determine what is best for their child.”