By Ken Reed

University of Colorado football coach Mike MacIntryre tells parents of prospective CU football players, who are concerned about the safety of their children’s brains, that they needn’t worry because playing college football is less dangerous than going out for a bike ride.

I kid you not.

Here’s what MacIntyre tells parents:

“He is a lot more in trouble riding that bicycle than he is ever playing football. It’s a proven fact.”

Uh, not so fast Coach Mac.

Yes, it’s true that bicycling accounts for the highest number of traumatic brain injury incidents (85,389 in 2009). More than football (46,948 in the same year). However, that statement is incredibly deceiving because those bike stats account for everybody who rides a bike, across all ages and genders.

According to a CDC study that tracked emergency room visits for boys, ages 10-19, over eight years, reported head injuries from football (13,667) well exceeded those from riding a bike (4,377). Moreover, the number of teenagers and young men that ride bicycles is significantly greater than the number that play football. That skews MacIntyre’s brain injury stats even more. The percentage of young male bike riders that suffer a traumatic brain injury from their activity is much much smaller than the percentage of football players that get a brain injury from theirs.

There’s another reason that MacIntyre’s response to parents is deceptive. When somebody rides a bike, they aren’t subject to repetitive blows to the head like football players are.

Doctors and researchers now believe that it is repetitive sub-concussive blows to the brain (like what happens in football) that lead to the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), not isolated concussions. In fact, studies have shown that football players suffer brain damage even when they haven’t suffered a concussion during the season.

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.

“The concussion is really irrelevant for triggering CTE,” says Dr. Lee Goldstein, an associate professor at Boston University’s School of Medicine and College of Engineering. “It’s really the hit that counts.”

Another area in which many football coaches are deceptive when talking to parents about the safety of playing football is helmets. Coaches tout new helmets, or protective caps over helmets, as making the game significantly safer for the human brain. The fact is, there isn’t a magical football helmet out there that protects the brain — and likely never will be. Helmets are great at preventing skull fractures but the brain is like Jello in a bowl. It sloshes around inside the brain and smashes into the side of the skull following head trauma in a similar way that Jello sloshes around and hits the side of the bowl when the bowl is shaken.

Nobody has figured out how to put a helmet on the brain inside of the skull in order to reduce concussion risk and long-term brain damage

Nevertheless, football coaches regularly tell the parents of youth, high school and college players that the new helmet technology their program uses significantly reduces their players’ risk of short and long-term brain damage.

The only thing that will significantly reduce brain trauma and injury is greatly reducing the number of full-contact practices and scrimmages during the season. That’s exactly what the Ivy League did. The Canadian Football League recently followed suit.

It’s clear. The appropriate action for youth, high school and college football is simple: A policy that bans all full-contact practices once the season starts and stringently limits full-contact practices in the off-season and preseason.

In the meantime, football coaches like MacIntyre need to quit spinning deceptive safety stories about the game of football to parents of young football players.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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