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Time to Revisit Safety Standards of Youth Football Practices?

First and foremost: If you haven't read the Associated Press story we're running on our front page today, about a former high school football player who suffered a concussion during a game last year and hanged himself two days later, do so immediately.

Doctors from the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy discovered damage to the portion of his brain that affects judgment and impulse control, suggesting to them a link between his concussion and his suicide. If this blog's ongoing coverage of youth concussions hasn't stressed the severity of the situation enough, maybe his story will.

And with that, let's focus on one of the next possible frontiers for youth sports safety: a reexamination of practice habits.

Gregg Easterbrook, who writes the Tuesday Morning Quarterback for ESPN, led his column this week with a plea for coaches, from preps to pros, to pay more attention to safety during football practice.

Unlike games, no fans or officials typically observe a practice, giving coaches free reign to put their players through torturous, potentially unsafe drills, Easterbrook suggests. He brings up the example of former San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Singletary, who famously put his players through the Nutcracker Drill—when two players line up opposite each other, helmets a foot apart, before "launching into one another violently," as ESPN.com's Mike Sando describes.

Helmet-to-helmet hits are banned during games, so you're not going to see many instances of Nutcracker Drill-esque hits in actual competition. That's why practices pose such a safety risk, according to Easterbrook. He writes:

This can be worst at the high school level, where most players are, legally, children under an adult's care. Coaches may scream at a child with obvious heatstroke symptoms to get up and keep running. Coaches may form a gantlet in which JV players run a line through older players, who pound on the JV players until one collapses injured. High school coaches who order such drills are thugs who don't belong in any position of responsibility. But they are often unsupervised, and know that during practice, they can get away with many things they'd never dream of trying with the public present.

As I suggested last month, the NFL's focus on athlete safety in their new collective bargaining agreement is a huge step in the right direction, and Easterbrook agrees. Limiting the number of 2-a-days, restricting practices to a maximum of three hours, and reducing the number of total padded practices all help the athlete safety cause.

But Easterbrook believes that "these new rules don't go far enough—medically unsafe drills need to be banned." (Here's looking at you, Nutcracker Drill.) And furthermore, Easterbrook recognizes football's major growing problem: the fact that the large hits that cause concussions may not even be as dangerous as the small, subconcussive hits that football players endure repeatedly.

To that point, he writes:

Regulating football practice, including the reduction of hitting, will not make football a wimpy sport. The NCAA has been regulating practice for player safety for eight years, and major Division I games are played with brutal intensity. Football will always be a collision sport and always be dangerous. But regulating practice to reduce risk makes a great deal of sense. Now that the NFL is on board with this concept, it is time for the states to toughen regulation of practice.

Take one look at guys like former New York Giants running back Tiki Barber, who said to the New Yorker earlier this year that he now views chronic traumatic encephalopathy as "a necessary side effect of contact activity," and ask yourself how long football can carry on in its present state.

How many parents will keep sending their child onto the gridiron, knowing that serious brain damage or a lifetime of depression could be only one hit away? How many parents will let their kids be offensive and defensive linemen, knowing that each snap of the ball results in a subconcussive impact that's potentially contributing to cumulative neurological damage?

When you look at it through that lens, it's surprising that there hasn't been more of an outcry to change the practice habits of youth football teams. That's likely to change in the coming years.

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