Now that Labor Day has passed signaling the unofficial ending of summer, many Americans are looking forward to the next best thing: Sunday night football.
But, in the past decade, it's become nearly impossible to separate professional football and the degenerative brain disease commonly known as CTE, or Chronic traumatic encephalopthy. In July, the CTE conversation was once again revisited after The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a stunning report that found that 99 percent of former NFL football players tested in a recent study were diagnosed with the neurological disorder that often leads to memory loss, dementia and depression.
Recognizing the heightened scrutiny about the medical risks associated with football, one California company called GameBreaker began to roll out soft shell helmets and shoulder pads for use during practices--hoping to prevent brain injury among amateur football players. The gear, which features military-grade technology, has been adopted by more than a thousand youth organizations and high schools nationwide.
"The idea is we want to protect the game of football and the guys that play it. So what was developed was a soft shell, kind of like an old-school leather helmet."
Known as D30, the specialized technology is a patented protected material engineered to absorb high levels of shock. When there's no force , the material moves freely. When impact is detected, however, the material's molecules lock together to disperse the energy. That dispersed energy provides additional protection.
In the past two years, GameBreaker CEO Michael Juels said the company has seen double-digit growth. Recently, GameBreaker scored partnerships with a few big-name football schools, such as Duke University, Texas A&M, University of Kansas and the University of Houston, which will use the gear during practices. Other sponsorships include ADIDAS and Football University, the largest youth camp series for tackle football players.
Protecting the head from injury before players become professional has proven pivotal in delaying brain trauma. In fact, JAMA's research concluded that the prevalence of CTE increased with level of play. This means the a person's vulnerability to developing CTE is related to the number of years spent on the field.
Dr. Christopher Norwinski, CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation and co-founder of Boston University's CTE Center, agreed. However, he believes that the quickest way to make football players in the whole ecosystem safer is to ban youth tackle football until high school.
"At the beginning I didn't have a problem with youth football," he said. "After ten years of looking at rotted brains of football players, I'm a big believer that youth football was never meant to exist and it really shouldn't exist."
The former Harvard football player explained that he's not entirely against the sport, but that youth should play other sports until they reach high-school age because of how their brains develop.
"The brain is very fragile, and especially when it's still developing. The more you dig into neuroanatomy and brain development you realize there's a special window of brain development between nine and twelve, where all sorts of fantastic things are happening physically within the brain."
According to a study published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine, adolescence--a period of transition that spans from ages nine to twelve--is "one of the most dynamic events of human growth and development, second only to infancy in terms of the rate of developmental changes that can occur within the brain." During this time, the brain undergoes a "rewiring" process, which comes with a greater ability to multitask and process complex information.
"If we invented sports today knowing what we did about the brain, we would never allow for a child to be hit in the head hundreds of times."
Youth tackle football participation has declined two percent since 2010, according to data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. That could be the result of heightened attention spawned by widely-shared scientific research and Hollywood depictions, such as in the 2015 film, "Concussion."
Forty-three-year-old Noble may have two decades of football experience under his belt, but he also acknowledges that there needs to be a change in football culture, particularly at the youth level. But he also said that could be challenging since the sport requires a certain level of physicality.
"Football is a violent sport, it has to be a violent sport. It's also part of the reason we like it."
That doesn't mean it's impossible, though. Companies like GameBreaker, he explained, are opening opportunities for football coaches to preserve the safety of their players, while, at the same time, offer them experiences to grown and learn.
"You've got to give [coaches] a way to work where they can still be competitive, they can still teach, they can still get their players better, but we've also got to do it in a way now where the kids aren't going to hit their heads because we're losing kids right and left. Youth football's being decimated right now."