Commentary: The X’s and O’s of brain injury and youth football
By Ralph Nader, Kenneth Reed
November 8, 2016
According to the Brain Injury Research Institute, 20 percent of this country’s high school football players suffer brain injuries in any given season.
That number should be unacceptable to all of us.
And it’s not just diagnosed brain injuries we need to worry about. Consider this: Purdue University researchers compared changes in the brains of high school football players who had suffered concussions with the brains of players who were concussion-free. They found brain tissue damage in both. That’s scary stuff. That means brain damage is occurring in high school football players without the players, their coaches or their parents even being aware of it.
There are about 1.3 million high school and 2.8 million youth football players in this country. That’s more than 4 million children and teenagers playing football. Compare that number with the 1,700 or so adults playing football in the NFL. Yet, the nation’s focus, when it comes to concussions, is on the NFL. That needs to be flipped.
Yes, it is our moral responsibility to inform college and pro football players about the dangers to the human brain that come with playing the game. But ultimately, athletes older than 18 are adults and free to make their own decisions. The 4 million youth and high school football players in this country are placed on teams by the adults in their lives, before they reach the age of legal consent, and before their brains are fully developed.
Should children younger than 18 be playing tackle football? It’s a legitimate question. Many concussion experts — including Dr. Bennet Omalu, the neuropathologist who discovered the progressive brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in football players — don’t think so.
But let’s face it; while football participation numbers are dropping slightly, the sport has its claws deep into our collective souls. Football is a cultural institution in America.
Rising insurance costs, following an outbreak of concussion-related lawsuits, might eventually doom youth and high school football. But it will happen slowly, if at all.
So, the concern is now. We need to act quickly to make football safer and spare numerous young athletes — and their families — from having to deal with the tragedies associated with football-induced brain trauma.
To that end, we’re launching a new initiative called Save Our Athletes’ Brains, or SOAB. It will eventually address brain safety issues in all youth and high school contact sports. However, because football is the youth and high school sport with the most concussions (by far), our initial focus will be on the gridiron.
At the youth level, we’ll be promoting the recommendations of Dr. Robert Cantu, a neurosurgeon and one of the country’s leading experts on sports concussions. Cantu believes a child shouldn’t play tackle football before age 14, basically before a child’s freshman year of high school.
“And I have absolutely no problem with parents who want to hold a child out for longer, say 16 or 18,” Cantu says.
For pre-high school youngsters who love football, SOAB will promote the growing number of flag football leagues throughout the country, in which many of the game’s skills can be developed.
At the high school level, SOAB will be calling for the adoption of the Ivy League’s new policy of eliminating full-contact hitting from practices during the regular season, while also putting stringent limits on full-contact hitting during preseason practices.
The research on limiting full contact in practice “all shows that you not only have fewer subconcussive hits, but also concussions,” Cantu says. “It’s not rocket science.”
Today, youth and high school teams are allowed to have significantly more full contact practices than NFL teams. That’s crazy and must stop. According to Practice Like Pros, an organization that promotes limited full-contact practices, only 3 percent of NFL concussions occur during practice. In high school, 60 to 75 percent of concussions occur during practice.
Can you still win without full-contact practices? Coaches nationwide will be glad to know the answer is yes.
The winningest coach in college football history, John Gagliardi, coached Division III St. John’s University in Minnesota to four national championships with a “no tackling in practice” policy. Mike Grant, son of former Minnesota Vikings coach Bud Grant and a former player for Gagliardi, has used the same no-tackling policy while winning 10 state high school championships in Minnesota. Dartmouth’s Buddy Teevens uses a similar policy and finished in a three-way tie for his league’s title in 2015 (before the Ivy League’s new policy was implemented). He saw injuries go down and wins go up.
Winning is great, but when it comes to youth and high school football, safety, not winning, must be priority No. 1. We owe it to our children to act decisively and take these necessary steps in order to protect their brains on the football field.
Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer, author and founder of League of Fans. Kenneth Reed is the league’s sports policy director.
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League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
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