By Ken Reed
The Denver Post
November 17, 2017
Youth and high school football players in this country experience more full-contact practices during the season than their college and professional counterparts.
Does that make any sense?
The brains of youth and high school players are still developing. Yet, we allow them to bash each other’s heads at a rate significantly higher than adults playing at the college and pro levels.
The professional Canadian Football League (CFL) recently followed the Ivy League’s lead and banned full-contact practices during the season.
The NFL has cut the number of live, full-pad, practices during the season to 14 due to concussion concerns. Moreover, most NFL off-season and preseason workouts are now conducted in t-shirts and shorts.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of our nation’s high school football players continue to have more full-pad, full-contact practices each week than NFL and college players do.
Similarly, most youth football teams still have full-contact activity during their practices.
This situation is insane. Research has clearly shown a direct correlation between the number of collisions players experience and brain injuries.
As Dr. Robert Cantu, a neurosurgeon and one of the country’s leading experts on sports concussions says it’s not rocket science: more contact equals more brain damage.
As a society, our focus has been on brain trauma and concussions at the professional level. However, much more attention needs to be placed on this issue at the youth and high school levels.
“There’s been a lot of interest in NFL football and head impacts, and it’s gotten a lot of press,” says Christopher T. Whitlow, associate professor of radiology at Wake Forest School of Medicine and author of a study on the effects of brain trauma on high school football players.
“But for every one NFL player, there [are] 2,000 high school players. Seventy percent of people playing football are adolescents, and it’s a really understudied population.”
According to the Wake Forest study, high school football players can sustain significant brain changes after only a single season of football, even if they don’t sustain a concussion.
Similarly, 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.
According to Practice Like Pros, an organization that promotes limited full-contact practices in high school and youth football, only 3 percent of NFL head trauma occurs during practice. In high school, 58 percent of head trauma occurs during practice.
If professional and college football leagues like the CFL and Ivy League think the game is too dangerous to the human brain to allow full-contact practices during the season, then why are we letting our children in youth and high school leagues have full-contact practices during the season?
The appropriate action is simple: A policy that bans all full-contact practices at the high school and youth levels once the season starts and stringently limits full-contact practices in the off-season and preseason.
For the football purists out there who are concerned a ban on full-contact practices would hurt the competitiveness and quality of the game, look no further than John Gagliardi.
Gagliardi, the winningest coach in college football history, led Division III St. John’s University in Minnesota to four national championships with a “no tackling in practice” policy.
There’s too much at stake to resort to avoidance behavior on this issue.
Four 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.
As such, we have a collective responsibility to make their football experience as safe as possible. Banning full-contact practices during the season, and limiting them in the off season and preseason, is a huge step towards that end.
Ken Reed is sports policy director for the League of Fans, a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader. He is a Denver native who played baseball and basketball for the University of Denver.
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