The NFL and Nickelodeon made football kid-friendly. In light of concussions, is that wise?

Nickelodeon aired a kid-friendly NFL football game between the Chicago Bears and the New Orleans Saints on Jan. 10, 2020. (Photo: Getty Images)
Nickelodeon aired a kid-friendly NFL football game between the Chicago Bears and the New Orleans Saints on Jan. 10, 2020. (Photo: Getty Images)

Slime cannons, googly eyes and SpongeBob SquarePants aren’t the hallmarks of professional football, but on Sunday the game got sillier, thanks to a partnership between the NFL and Nickelodeon.

Airing alongside the CBS broadcast of the Jan. 10 game between the New Orleans Saints and the Chicago Bears was a Nickelodeon version titled NFL Wild Card Game on Nickelodeon. During that game, a filter sprayed the field with slime, players were animated with exaggerated eyes and silly hats, there was a half-time preview of Kamp Koral: SpongeBob’s Under Years and commentators simplified plays — when Saints quarterback Taysom Hill (who last week sustained a concussion), was tackled, it was compared to “scraping your knee at recess.”

The Nick broadcast, which earned 2 million viewers (distinguishing itself as the “most-watched program among total viewers in nearly four years,” according to ViacomCBS), scored on social media as a family bonding activity and a new way to shake up football.

Representatives from Nickelodeon and its parent company ViacomCBS did not immediately respond to Yahoo Life’s requests for comment. Sean McManus, the chairman of CBS Sports said in a press release, “This is a first of its kind presentation for the NFL together with Nickelodeon, and we are very excited to create a unique telecast that will maximize the co-viewing appeal for kids and families, while maintaining the integrity of the game and its traditions.” While Brian Robbins, the president of ViacomCBS Kids & Family Entertainment added: “Our game plan is to make sure the NFL Wild Card Game on Nickelodeon definitely lives up to its name by infusing the telecast with Nick’s sensibility of surprise and fun at almost every turn.”

Still, research linking football to concussions have raised flags for medical experts and legislators, many of which have unsuccessfully campaigned to ban youth tackle football. A spokesperson from the NFL referred Yahoo Life to its Player Health & Safety fact sheet outlining its concussion protocol, including a five-step process for returning to the field. The document also stated that approximately 30 medical providers are stationed at stadiums on game days.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), concussions are traumatic brain injuries caused by hard impact to the head or body that damages the brain. Concussions don’t always lead to loss of consciousness, says the CDC, but can affect cognition, emotions, physicality or sleep (for example, difficulty thinking clearly, headache, irritability or sleeping more or less than usual). While children might experience loss of balance, a lack of interest in hobbies or temper tantrums.

In 2015, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a football-specific policy statement noting that most related injuries in youth football are minor, however, severe harm and concussion are higher among football players than other team sport athletes and may increase with age. The group associated tackling, often with poor technique, with “severe” and “catastrophic” injuries. “Efforts should be made to improve the teaching of proper tackling technique and enforce existing rules prohibiting the use of improper technique,” wrote the authors. In 2018, an AAP policy statement on sport-related concussions (updated from 2010) noted, “On the basis of a compilation of several large epidemiologic studies, the high school sport with the highest risk of concussion remains American tackle football.”

Researchers have also studied chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), brain deterioration that’s only diagnosed through autopsy, in relation to football. In 2017, when examining the brains of 202 deceased football players, Boston University researchers diagnosed CTE among 177 players, including 110 of 111 ex-NFL players. The study suggested that CTE “may be related to prior participation in football,” though lead author Dr. Ann McKee told the Associated Press, “There are many questions that remain unanswered” adding that “some players do not have evidence of this disease despite long playing years.”

The NFL applauded the study at the time, responding in a statement, “The medical and scientific communities will benefit from this publication and the NFL will continue to work with a wide range of experts to improve the health of current and former NFL athletes,” citing its $200 million donations to CTE and other neuroscience research. And in November, the NFL partnered with the youth football organization PopWarner to release instructional videos on learning proper technique.

“There isn’t a simple answer as to whether football is safe [for kids] — each family has to make their own decisions based on the desires of their child and his or her medical history,” Dr. David Soma, a pediatric sports medicine expert at Mayo Clinic Children’s Center tells Yahoo Life. “We don’t know enough about the impact of one or two concussions during youth, but the cumulative impact of injury could pose risk.”

“We also can’t say that a concussion at age 10 will arrest brain development at age 18,” he says, “however delaying onset of some activities might minimize some injuries.”

Chris Nowinski, the co-founder of Boston University’s CTE Center and the co-author of a study that linked the age of initial exposure to football with CTE, raises other concerns for young players such as tackling, a skill that’s difficult to master without adequate body strength. He recommends that players under the age of 14 stick to flag football, in which players grab flags hanging from the belts of opponents, in lieu of tackling.

Nowinski is a former Harvard football player turned WWE professional wrestler, whose career ended in 2003 with a kick to the chin, causing post-concussion syndrome. He co-founded the nonprofit organization Concussion Legacy Foundation to raise awareness about head trauma. According to Nowinski, football helmets need improvement.

“They were designed in the 1940s solely to prevent depressed skull fractures [a break in the skull bone], not concussions,” Nowinski tells Yahoo Life. “Today, helmets are slightly better at preventing brain injuries but not enough.” He points to a small 2013 study published in the Annual Review of Biomedical Engineering that asked kids ages 9 to 12 to play tackle football wearing helmets equipped with electromechanical devices that measured head impact exposure. “While the acceleration magnitudes among 9–12-year-old players tended to be lower than those reported for older players, some recorded high magnitude impacts were similar to those seen at the high school and college level,” wrote the authors.

Sports benefit children across the board such as increased exercise, higher self-esteem and improved social skills and mental health. And according to Soma, sports-related concussions are a growing focus. “Many people today played football during a time when concussions were [largely] disregarded,” he tells Yahoo Life. “Today, we take concussions really seriously. Will we see less CTE? I am hopeful but we can’t [yet] tell the outcomes of our decisions today.”

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