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Could Concussions Be the Death Knell of Youth Football?

"If the sport of football ever dies, it will die from the outside in."—Jonah Lehrer, Grantland, Jan. 10

In recent weeks, both ESPN.com's Grantland and the Boston Globe have published articles about the severity of the concussion crisis in youth sports, particularly football.

Both appear to reach the same conclusion: In its current state, there's a serious possibility that youth football won't be sustainable for much longer.

Lehrer writes in his piece for Grantland:

"The death [of football] will start with those furthest from the paychecks, the unpaid high school athletes playing on Friday nights. It will begin with nervous parents reading about brain trauma, with doctors warning about the physics of soft tissue smashing into hard bone, with coaches forced to bench stars for an entire season because of a single concussion."

With research suggesting that even one traumatic brain injury (such as a concussion) could cause permanent damage in athletes, Lehrer suggests that the risks may outweigh the rewards for student-athletes interested in playing youth football.

"This disturbing data has not dissuaded anyone from playing in the NFL," he writes. "The tremendous rewards offered to professional athletes help compensate for the potential risk. ... But this same calculus doesn't apply to high school athletes, that pipeline of future talent. ... The overwhelming majority of these kids will never play the sport competitively again. They are getting paid nothing and yet they are paying the highest cost."

Worth the Risk?

In his article, Lehrer focuses on Mater Dei (Calif.) High School, a so-called "football powerhouse" with two national championships. He spoke with head football coach Bruce Rollinson, who tells him that as a result of the recent focus on concussions, "without a doubt, practice has gotten a lot less physical. More soft helmets, less tackling."

The major downside to this approach, as Lehrer notes: If practice makes perfect, taking away students' ability to tackle in practice makes it more difficult for them to learn the proper tackling techniques.

"It's not an ideal solution," Rollinson said. "But what else can we do? The doctors tell us there have to be fewer hits."

Rollinson, a former player himself, told Lehrer, "Now I'm 62 and I'm still hurting. The game sticks with you like that. Sometimes, when I can't remember where my keys are, I wonder if I can't remember because of the way I played."

"I don't want these kids to be thinking the same thoughts when they're my age," he said.

"Look, most of my players aren't going to play ball for a living. I know they don't want to hear that, but it's the truth. So there's really no reason they should risk messing up their brain."

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words

On Jan. 7, the Boston Globe published a commentary from Derrick Z. Jackson, called "The Black Hole of Sports," focusing on the ongoing concussion crisis.

Jackson visited the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, where Dr. Ann McKee showed him slides from brains afflicted with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease found in a growing number of NFL and NHL players. (Currently, CTE is only detectable after death.)

More alarmingly: Traces of CTE are now being discovered in deceased young athletes, something that shouldn't be happening until decades later.

"The difference in an injured athlete's brain is so dramatic that the comparisons should be required viewing for parents and youths contemplating high-contact sports and the coaches, athletic directors, and school principals in charge of them," Jackson writes.

"These images should be pinned on the wall with those of blackened lungs we've long used to scare teens from smoking. They just might scare parents and officials into keeping children away from such sports until the sport is changed to minimize head injury."

"It gets very scary,'' McKee told him. "In fact, it's gotten to the point where I don't even think about the future. I just report what I see. I think it's going to change things, but I really don't know how it's going to change. I think we have some very concerning information."

The Hidden Danger

In an interview with Jackson, McKee alluded to newer research that focuses on the accumulation of damage caused by subconcussive, lower-impact hits. She said that CTE could be caused by thousands of these smaller hits, which offensive and defensive linemen experience on literally every snap in a game.

Her colleague, Dr. Robert Cantu, recommends that no child younger than 14 participate in contact sports until the prevalence of head contact is reduced in those sports.

"It doesn't make sense to me," Cantu said to Jackson, "to be subjecting young individuals to traumatic head injury. There's no head injury that's a good one, and you can't play collision sports without accumulating head injuries."

Last year, I wrote a post with five potential changes that could improve the safety of youth football, including stronger penalties for helmet-to-helmet hits, mandatory baseline-concussion testing, and a reduction of practices.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell also spoke about potential upcoming safety changes last October, saying, "everything is on the table" at this point.

Plain and simple: States have made considerable progress in protecting youths against concussions, with 20+ having enacted youth-concussion laws in 2011.

However, these laws appear to only be the first step in the ongoing fight against concussions in youth sports. Plenty of work still remains, as evidenced by the recent articles in Grantland and the Globe.

What's at stake? Only the health of millions of young athletes and the future of the most popular sport in the United States.

Want all the latest K-12 sports news? Follow @SchooledinSport on Twitter.

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