All Shook Up

When I was a little boy, we didn’t have organized leagues for youth football, or what a lot of people refer to by the politically incorrect term, “midget football.” That didn’t stop us from playing.

We were every bit as crazy about football as kids are now, and nearly every day in the fall we would pick up a sandlot game in a public park. Each of us had some kind of helmet and a set of shoulder pads, which we wore mostly because we thought they looked cool, not because we worried about getting hurt.

I think every neighborhood has one kid with a highly developed sense of drama, and he seems to get hurt at least once in each game. We had ours, and I’m sure we lost a few baby teeth here and there, but I don’t remember anyone ever being seriously hurt.

By the time I started playing high school football a few years later, I was over 6 feet tall, and some of the guys on the team were over 200 pounds. As kids get bigger, stronger and faster the physics involved in the equation changes rapidly as well, greatly increasing the likelihood of injuries.

Fortunately, we were issued newly designed “suspension” helmets, which used air to isolate the head from blows to the hard plastic outer shell. Although I often felt as though my whole body were black and blue, I was never really hurt playing football, and certainly never suffered a head injury.

Many of my teammates were not so lucky. There were compound leg fractures, mangled hands, cracked collarbones and various other trauma, sometimes gruesome, but thanks to the helmets our heads stayed pretty much intact. Even so, I remember a few occasions when someone had his “bell rung.”

Once I was standing on the sidelines when our star wide receiver came off the field, clearly disoriented. One of the coaches asked him a few questions, like, “What’s your name?” “How many fingers am I holding up?” and “What day is it today?” The player got his name and the fingers right, but wasn’t sure about the day.

The coach sent him back in the game. Those of us who were within earshot found the whole exchange comical, and were no doubt relieved that there was nothing wrong with someone we couldn’t afford to lose.

That incident seems like something from a bygone era, and indeed it is, and yet we still often seem to take a cavalier attitude toward the dangers of concussion. In the most recent Super Bowl, for example, New England Patriot wide receiver Julian Edelman appeared dazed and unsteady on his feet after a hard tackle in the fourth quarter, but he remained in the game. He made three more receptions, including a game-tying touchdown.

You would think the league would be more careful, having just settled a class-action lawsuit with over 5,000 former players who accused the league of failing to protect them from repeated concussions. The NFL acknowledged that nearly one third of retired players develop some type of long-term dementia such as Alzheimer’s and agreed to pay up to $5 million to each victim. That’s a lot of money.

It’s going to be a lot more money in the future, because the problem isn’t going away. Using the 2013 and 2014 seasons as a measure, somewhere around 10 percent of the 1500 active players in the league suffer a concussion each year. The NFL is an extremely profitable enterprise, and it will need to be.

All that money won’t cure dementia, but at least the players have become more aware of the risk, and the settlement included $10 million to fund an education program regarding head injuries. My real concern, however, is not with professional football players. They are adults, and most of them would choose to play in the NFL regardless of how dangerous it was.

Pro players are not just a tiny fraction of the population, they are a tiny fraction of people playing organized football. The statistic that troubles me is this one: 70 percent of the people who play full-contact football in the United States are under the age of 14. The average 10-year-old child playing youth football receives 240 significant blows to the head over the course of a season.

A recent study at the Boston University School of Medicine, published by the American Academy of Neurology, suggested an alarming link between youth football and the NFL situation. The study took retired professional players experiencing cognitive problems and divided them into two groups, those who had played youth football and those who had not.

Both groups were administered a variety of neuropsychological tests to measure mental functions such as flexibility, memory and intelligence. Even after controlling for factors such as age, education and length of career, the players who had not played youth football scored significantly higher than those who had.

While some children may never show signs of a concussion, and those who do may appear to recover more quickly than adults, scientists now think that all kids playing football are at risk for long-term brain damage. The most critical period of vulnerability is between the ages of 10 and 12.

Of course football is not the only thing that causes head injuries to children. More common causes would be motor vehicle accidents, falls from a height, strikes from fast-moving objects (like rocks) and child abuse. We can’t protect kids from everything, and I still refuse to believe that the time we spent on bikes without helmets while we were growing up was all that dangerous.

Football is different. It is by far the most dangerous team sport, and about the only one where collisions with your opponent, and the ground, are pretty much the object of the game. In high school football, one young man is killed every week of the season, on average, and most deaths have nothing to do with concussion.

Parents have begun to get the message. According to a poll conducted by the Associated Press, nearly half of them would be uncomfortable if a child of theirs were playing football, and 5 percent have discouraged a child from playing in the past two years.

I don’t have a son (unless you count Jack, our golden retriever) but if I did I would not want him to play football. On the other hand, I am a huge believer in the value of playing a team sport, and would like to see every child participate in at least one.

I’ve never even watched a soccer match on television, let alone played in one, but if I could go back and do it over again, that might be my choice. Worldwide, something like 270 million people, male and female, play organized soccer, and three-and-a-half billion people look on.

They can’t all be wrong.


by Kevin Fahy

E-mail Kevin at kfahy@fwpi.com

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