My son Henry is 2. If things don’t change, he will never play organized football. I won’t let him.
Each year more research is done on the effect of football on the brains of those who play it. Each year the research becomes a little bit more frightening.
The National Football League and the State of Connecticut have both made attempts at minimizing the risk. The NFL has issued high-profile fines to players for helmet-to-helmet hits and issued new guidelines on how teams must deal with players who show signs of having a concussion.
Connecticut was one of the first states to pass a law that requires high school coaches to be trained to recognize a concussion and establish protocols for how concussed athletes must be treated.
There are solid actions and should be applauded.
But researchers at Purdue University are slowly uncovering a far more serious problem. There is a real possibility that concussions are only the most obvious signs of damage and that even players without concussions suffer mental impairment during football season.
The Purdue researchers worked with Jefferson High School in Indiana and, in the first year of research, fitted 21 players helmets with accelerometers that would measure the impact of the hits they were taking.
Researchers did brain scans and cognitive tests on the players throughout the season.
The findings, originally publish in the “Journal of Neurotrauma,” should send a shiver through anyone who loves the game.
Nearly half the players who appeared to be uninjured still showed impairment in brain activity. The second year’s research, just recently released, shows more of the same. In all, of the 31 players who did not suffer a concussion, 17 had impaired scores on the cognitive tests.
The research has received some excellent media attention. Sports Illustrated featured it as part of a package of stories about the dangers of football. PBS’ “Frontline” also reported the findings in a story about high school football.
But the attention focused on this research has been obscured by the growing concern over concussions. There were many more stories about the recent death of Dave Duerson, a former NFL player who committed suicide and was discovered to suffer from CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), which is a form of brain damage common to boxers and, now, football players.
No doubt the continued efforts of researchers at Boston University to study the impact of professional football is worthy but the media attention that research has received may be obscuring the real dangers involved in letting your kids play what is, without question, the most popular sport in America.
Certainly, concussions are a problem, but the Purdue research indicates the number of blows to the head may be as big a problem as a single blow that results in a concussion. The data suggests some high school players are subjected to as many as 1,600 hits during a season. The hits can range from 20 to 100 Gs.
For comparison sake, heading a soccer ball has an impact somewhere between 15 and 30 Gs but, of course, no player heads a ball at the kind of impact 1,600 times in a season.
There is some good news. So far, the research suggests the kids who suffer trauma are able to recover before the next season, although no one is certain of the potential long-term impact of the game. And no research has yet been done on levels lower than high school.
The good news, it should be noted, is extremely limited. High school football is meant to supplement the academic experience and the best we can say is that many of the kids who play it will have impaired memory during Spanish class but that it won’t last until the next September.
Most of the time, when people write about this, they conclude with suggestions for how to make football safer. Improved blocking and tackling techniques. Some suggest going back to more primitive helmets, a line of logic that if followed to its conclusion would indicate football is most safely played in the nude.
All overlook a simple fact. Before we make the game safer, we need to make it safe. Because, right now, it’s not.
I grew up in the Naugatuck Valley where football is as much a part of fall as pumpkins. You go into those towns, Ansonia and Naugatuck and Derby and Seymour and you understand what high school football can mean to a community. I love the sport. I do.
But I love my son more. I’m not willing to let him risk his brain on a game.