Risk of concussion may be greater for girls playing football than boys

More girls than ever are donning jerseys and hitting the field – to play football. Alise Scaggs and Alexis Ervin are all grit on the gridiron. They play in part of an all-girl tackle football league.

Alise loves the sport, explaining, “When I score a touchdown, it’s probably one of the most exciting feelings I’ve ever experienced.” Alexis says, “This is aggressive and I like the contact.”

They aren’t alone. Nearly two thousand girls now play on formerly all-boys high school teams

There’s a girls’ flag football team managed by USA Football, and girls tackle leagues are popping up around the country.

In 2014, WINK News interviewed Emily Culvahouse, an Estero High School kicker. She says, “It’s a feeling that I don’t get from anything else. Being under those lights on the game field with the crowd going and my team all hyped up jumping on the sidelines.”

Her goals were lofty saying “People think I’m crazy, but I really want to be the first female in the NFL.”

That football season, she was one of 35 girls in the state of Florida who played tackle football. The next year, 46 girls signed up to play in the Sunshine State. And in the 2016-2017 season, 66 girls played tackle football in Florida.

While the numbers nationally continue to rise for females in football, the high school athletics participation survey notes the opposite trend for boys.

DOCUMENTS: High school sports participation  2014-15 Breakdown | 2015-16 Breakdown | 2016-17 Breakdown

Chad Oldham helped launch one league when his daughter asked to play. He says it’s about time girls have the option. “To be honest with you, I don’t know why it’s been so long for girls to play tackle football.” He says they enjoy the sport just as much, and even more, than the boys do.

While there are no studies specifically on girls playing football, one nationwide study of nine high school sports found that, overall, a significantly higher proportion of concussions was seen for girls versus boys.

Dr. Mabel Lopez, a south Fort Myers neuropsychologist, says there are two theories on why females are more susceptible to traumatic brain injury: brain and body structure, and hormones.

“Studies show that males are two times more likely than females to get a concussion, however, when a person does have a concussion, the female is more likely to have a brain injury or a more severe brain injury than a male,” Lopez said. “The female neck, in general, can be weaker than the male neck and is more prone or more susceptable to a brain injury because of that.”

While the NFL has put an emphasis on male brain injuries, there’s not enough data on brain injuries for females, Lopez said.

“Athletes in general are very competitive,” Lopez said. “They want to play and they want to win so this long term possibility of having a dementia when they’re older called CTE may not play a role in their decision making today.”

Oldham says his coaches are all certified in the Headsup Concussion Prevention Program.

His league has adjusted the game to protect the players and make fun the priority, saying, “We basically eliminated all the high impact plays. The field isn’t the same size as what the boys play on; they play on a smaller field to reduce higher impacts.”

Parents of players in Chad’s league take some comfort that their daughters are tackling other girls, but they never forget that risk is part of the game. Andrea Hollingshead is a mom to more than one football-playing girl. She says, “With any sport you’re going to have some sort of risk involved. So, I’m beyond the mom that scared on the sidelines.”

Alise loves the game and thinks it’s great that females are taking to some tackle time. “I think every girl should have the opportunity to play.”