By Ken Reed

A segment called “Cost of the Game,” in the latest Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel on HBO, is must-see viewing for parents and coaches of youth and high school football players. The episode talks about the fact that youth and high school football programs have more full-contact practices than teams at either the NFL or college level.

Youth and high school athletes have brains that are still developing and thus, are more vulnerable to concussions and the repetitive subconcussive hits that take place in football. As a result, young football players are more likely to suffer from things like Second-Impact Syndrome, which leads to brain swelling and can result in death.

At the time the show was made, 17 high school football players had died following brain injuries in the last two and a half seasons of high school football across the country. That’s tragic but I think the show focused too much on the deaths and not enough on the long-term effects of the constant head-pounding that occurs in a typical football season. It’s repetitive subconcussive brain trauma that can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurological disease that can result in depression, chronic headaches, dementia and symptoms similar to those of Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Renowned brain researcher Ann McKee, at Boston University’s School of Medicine, has studied the brains of teenage high school football players and discovered early signs of CTE. That means the debilitating symptoms of CTE could begin to appear in young football players as early as their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s.

Not playing football is the only way to eliminate this risk. But significantly reducing full-contact practices is a way to reduce short and long-term brain damage.

Due to negotiations with the NFL players association (NFLPA), full-contact practices are restricted in the NFL. The NCAA has also cut back on the number of full-contact practices allowed. Dartmouth University (highlighted in the Real Sports episode) has completely done away with full-contact football practices, preseason and during the season. The number of concussions Dartmouth football has experienced in the couple years since they’ve implemented this policy has dropped dramatically. It’s safe to assume the number of subconcussive blows to the head has dropped dramatically as well. Dartmouth players hit sleds and moving tackling dummies during practices to work on tackling technique.

The no-contact policy doesn’t mean that teams can’t be competitive. Buddy Teevens’ Dartmouth teams have a second-place finish and a co-championship in the last three years under this new policy. John Gagliardi, the winningest coach in college football history, won numerous league titles and several national titles while coaching at St. John’s University in Minnesota.

Inspired by Teevens, the entire Ivy League adopted a “no-contact during the regular season” policy this year. The move was a strong statement by the progressive Ivy League and its coaches — who voted unanimously in its favor. The league is clearly taking player safety and brain injury risks seriously.

Formal injury results for this season haven’t been completed, but the feedback across the league has been positive.

“We hope it trickles down to high school, middle school, and Pop Warner. For our schools, we haven’t lost anything,” said Princeton football coach Bob Surface.

“We could keep doing what we did in 1988 when I played, but then this game is going to be extinct. Or you can make this game safer.”

Here’s hoping youth sports administrators and coaches — along with their high school counterparts — are listening.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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