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The Debate

Of every 1,000 children, between three and five will suffer a concussion each year. Worse, there are few effective treatments for traumatic brain injury, aside from rest and pain medication. As such, more and more Canadian parents are enrolling their children in safer sports, and turning their backs on hockey and other body contact sports. In this online debate, two safety experts weigh in with their opinions on whether children should continue to play contact sports. Vote on the argument that you find most persuasive.

The Debaters

Debate contributor
Emile TherienPast president of the Canada Safety Council
The intense level of competition in sports borders on child abuse.
Debate contributor
Dr. Charles TatorNeurosurgeon at Toronto Western Hospital - View Bio
A tough decision, but I still say, 'sign them up.'

The Discussion

Debate contributor

Dr. Charles Tator : As a parent, I have always had to delegate the responsibility for the safety of my children to other adults. From nursery school teachers to high school teachers, from swimming instructors to rugby coaches, I have left other adults in charge of my kids. Some of them performed as carefully and cautiously as I have, and that is saying a lot, because I am a brain surgeon. Others have been reckless and have promoted violence - and by doing so allowed unnecessary risk and facilitated needless injury. For example, one of my son’s hockey coaches targeted a star on an opposing team in an organized league. He urged my son and his team-mates to “Get him! Hurt him!” Even with careful selection we still experienced our share of fractures and internal injuries.

Because I study injuries very carefully, I know how tough it is for parents to decide whether to enroll their children in collision sports such as hockey, football, rugby or even soccer and basketball. For example, there is a lot more information out there about the effects of concussions and other injuries than when I signed up my kids or when my parents let me sign up. There is also greater risk in some sports today because the kids are taller, weigh more, and thus generate more force when they collide with other players, the floor, ice, ground or the boards. Knowing the risks, parents are now more cautious, and organizations like Hockey Canada have done surveys that prove the increased parental concern.

As an advocate for injury prevention and founder of Parachute Canada, a national injury prevention charity, I know that ALMOST ALL, BUT NOT ALL injuries are preventable. So, you may wonder why I still say “Sign them up!”

I still advocate for kids to play collision sports because I want kids to experience the joy of playing these sports just like I did. Most of them cannot get the same thrills of camaraderie from golf or croquet. And certainly chess and video games will not get them the exercise they need. Collision sports teach kids a lot, and they benefit from the group/team interaction, and skills development. These are essential learning opportunities for life.

Collision team sports taught me not only how to be a better sports participant, but also how to be a better citizen. In hockey and football, I learned to listen to and respect the coach. I learned to listen to the team captain. I learned how to protect myself. I learned that I had to wait my turn to play. I learned that I was not the center of the universe, but a team member. I learned how to be punctual, and stick to a schedule. I learned how to be responsible for my own body and for the bodies of my team mates and opponents. I learned that it was better to obey the rules than to sit in the penalty box. I learned to be organized and responsible for my hockey equipment. I learned what sportsmanship is.

Also, I believe that what I learned in team collision sports spilled over to other sports like skiing. And that I was better protected against injury as a result. The lessons about respecting my body and the bodies of others were useful, as was the lesson about keeping equipment in good condition.

But nowadays in collision sports we have to do more than just carefully delegate responsibilities for safety, exercise and character-building. We cannot just sit back and hope for the best. We have to be vigilant Hockey Moms and Hockey Dads to ensure adherence to safety, and ensure non-violence. Some leagues and coaches that had too many injuries encountered the wrath of parents, who voted with their feet and removed their kids from participation once the violence and injuries began to unfold.

The benefits described above may not be enough to convince some parents to enroll their kids in collision sports. I try to reassure them by teaching them all the things we have learned about injuries such as concussions, for example, how to prevent injuries and how to teach kids to play safely. We know that safe participation is possible. It involves a combination of preventive measures and education about concussion identification and management. We have empowered parents to work with us. Informed and vigilant Hockey Moms and Dads have already made a difference - they forced Hockey Canada to raise the age of body checking to about age 13. It should be age 16 in my view.

Everyone has a role in keeping our kids safe. If a kid has had too many concussions, for example, then further concussions could be catastrophic. I’ve had to advise many families to not allow their child to return to contact sports, and I know how devastating this can be. Fortunately, this is rarely necessary, especially if parents are vigilant and force coaches and leagues to get savvy about concussions and other injuries.

So, sign them up and watch closely!

Debate contributor

Emile Therien : Concussions, according to a research study, can make life so miserable for young athletes that they rate their level of happiness at about the same level as chemotherapy patients. The Concussion Research Project at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) in Ottawa studied 25 children --15 boys and 10 girls -- who suffered sports-related concussions and continued to suffer from headaches and other symptoms three months after the incident. The patients ranged in age from 12 to 17. Eight of the children suffered their head injuries while playing hockey. A smaller number of injuries were the result of sports such as basketball and gymnastics. This project, which began in May 2011, was released on September 27, 2013.

This CHEO study should serve as another wakeup call for Canadians concerned with the health and safety of all young players, and especially hockey players, and the future of children's and youth sport in general. This study falls on the heels of another landmark study released in 2010 which revealed that 11 and 12-year old hockey players in leagues that allow body checking are 2.5 times more likely to get hurt and 3.5 times more likely to suffer a concussion. In Quebec, players do not bodycheck until bantam ages (13 and 14), and even then it is only introduced at the elite levels of the game. Pee wee (ages 11 and 12) is when body checking began in Alberta, until the change in 2013. The joint study by the University of Calgary, McGill and Laval study tracked 2,200 pee wee players from both provinces for the entire 2007-2008 season to measure injury frequency.

This study suggested a case can be made for raising the body checking age and for limiting body checking leagues across the board. One of the researchers for this study, Dr. Carolyn Emery of the University of Calgary, estimated that if body checking was not permitted in pee wee hockey, this would reduce the risk of injury by over 1,000 injuries and 400 concussions among the nearly 9,000 pee wee level children playing in Alberta. In 2013, Hockey Canada and its affiliated organizations banned bodychecking in peewee hockey (11-and-12-year old players). Across the country, this bold move will remove the risk each year by over 9,000 serious injuries and 3,600 concussions among the 75,000 peewee level players playing the game. This decision is an acknowledgement of the problem and a step in the right direction.

The growing incidence of serious injuries among young participants in sports is a national public health and safety problem and the challenge and must be addressed as such.

The consequences of traumatic hits to the head speak for themselves. Research by Shree Bhalera, director of medical psychiatry at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto and Deborah Pink, resident in psychiatry at the University of Toronto, reveals the following: Traumatic brain injuries, via hits to the head or bodies colliding against the boards or other bodies can cause: post-concussive symptoms, cognitive disorders, depression, personality changes, and substance abuse. And having a concussion increases one's risk significantly of having another concussion.

It is easily argued that the intense level of competition among children involved in those highly competitive sports, and especially minor hockey, is contributing to these life-altering injuries “borders on child abuse” and it has to stop.

It is about time these sports organizations change their rules with a far greater emphasis on recreation and fun and far, far less on intense competition and"winning at all costs". When medical experts and safety advocates say research shows that injury-prevention and harm-reduction initiatives are good for any game, everyone - organizations, coaches, players, parents - should take note.