Wednesday , 25 April 2018

Mike Bruu: What Concussions Could Mean for the Future of High School Football

By Mike Bruu, TSB Sports Writer

I remember the first time that I was exposed to football. Back in those days, ESPN didn’t run “live” episodes of SportsCenter 24/7, so the network used to show old NFL Films videos that consisted of 30-minute montages of bloopers, highlights, and most significantly, the hardest hits in the league.

I used to look so forward to watching these videos every single day, and the more and more I watched the montages of hard hit after hard hit, I slowly began to believe that football was a game built upon the foundation of glorifying “blow-up” hits, or tackles that would make you jump out of your chair and make weird sound effects with your mouth.

But fast-forward to present-day football and times have changed just a little bit. While many of us still pass around high-fives every time we see a safety “blow-up” a wide receiver running across the middle on Sunday afternoons, football fans are slowly being trained to conduct themselves in those situations as if we just saw someone trip and fall in the middle of the sidewalk. Despite the fact that the situation may cause a different initial reaction than concern, we have to make sure that they are OK first and don’t have any significant injuries before we can let the other emotional reactions out. It is the same thing with how we are supposed to react to big hits on Sundays; before we can celebrate a tremendous shot by the safety, first we have to make sure that the receiver can get up and that he is OK to walk off on his own power. It may sound inhumane that football fans’ first response is not to make sure the player is ok but rather celebrate the intensity of the collision, but what are we supposed to blame for those reactions? The videos that we all grew up with that glorified the hard hits? The highlight packages on ESPN of the hardest hits that week in the NFL?

Slowly but surely, football is on the way of becoming a shell of itself and is losing the sheer power and intensity that draws so many people to sitting in front of the TV every Sunday afternoon in the fall and watching a game for three hours. And if there is one type of injury that critics and scientists are pointing to as the ultimate cause for the changing of the guard in football, it is the brain injury known as the concussion. A concussion generally occurs when the head is either spun very quickly or when the head accelerates rapidly and then is stopped. Brain cells then become depolarized and shoot all of its neurotransmitters at once in a rapid and unhealthy cascade, overflowing the brain with chemicals and deadening receptors linked to memory and learning. While the threat of concussions has been around since the dawn of football, the scope of the injury has never been larger than it is in the current day game, from the very top of the mountain in the NFL to the base of the mountain in pee-wee football.

The situation has become magnified in the past several weeks with the growing number of lawsuits filed against the NFL by former players who say that the league did not do enough to prevent these brain injuries and ultimately turned a blind eye to the issues. Also, the unfortunate suicide of linebacker Junior Seau a few weeks ago created a buzz storm around the national media for several days in the wake of the event, sparking the debate of whether football would even be around 20-30 years from now if more and more former players were found to have killed themselves from head injuries sustained in the NFL. Now while evidence is still waiting to be determined on whether or not Seau’s suicide was caused by hits received during his playing days, the statistics are evident that concussions have become an important issue in today’s football that needs to be further analyzed and solved very soon.

What About High School Football?

All we hear about on this subject is the NFL. Let’s bring it closer to home. Instead of looking at this issues in the broadest form of the sport, let’s focus more on high school football and how it affects players at that level. Let’s take a look at some of statistics, according to

• High school football players have between a 60-78% chance of suffering a concussion per 100,000 athletic exposures (practice, games, workouts, etc.)
• At least one player sustains a mild concussion in nearly every American football game.
• About 67,000 diagnosed concussions are suffered each year with many more going unreported by athletic trainers, coaches, and parents.
• One study suggests that the likelihood of sustaining a concussion in a contact sport is as high as 20% in any given year.

In the great state of Texas, high school football and the Friday night lights are a time honored tradition that has been passed down by several generations. Parents and former alumni are passionate. They love pulling up to their old stomping grounds every Friday night to watch their alma mater play a little football. But with the growing concern amongst youth parents about the dangers of football and the media firestorm that is blazing right now about the impact that the sport can have on your life once you are done playing, could this tradition slowly be fading with a decrease in participation or significant rule changes?

“No, I don’t think so, not at all,” said McKinney Boyd head football coach Don Drake. “I think that kids still want to be a part of our program and still want to be a part of high school football, and you know injuries and concussions are a part of that.”

So what is being done to further keep these kids safe and prevent concussions to the fullest extent possible? Helmets are now being created with the help of several neurologists to create the most cushions and support in the brain area to reduce the significance of impact. Also, procedures have been enhanced and put into strict place on how coaches and athletic trainers must deal with a player who may be suffering from a concussion and shows concussion-like symptoms.

“We have a protocol that we follow in terms of how we deal with head injuries,” said Drake about the process the high school programs go through. “We give kids a baseline cognitive ability test on the computer before we ever start contact drills, and then if a kid is showing signs of a concussion, one of the first things that we do is get back on there and take that test so that we find out cognitively if they are where they need to be.”

“And if they are not then there is a process they have to go through where obviously they are removed from all activity for a certain period of time, and then we gradually work them back into it.”

“Our number one goal is to take care of these kids and play the game the correct way, with their heads up and with good technique and in the best possible equipment that we can have,” said McKinney High School head coach Jeff Smith. “The helmet technology is a lot better than it was a long time ago, and we really try to get the best we can have to put on these kids. But anytime these kids have symptoms, our trainers follow a certain routine that they take those kids through, and if there is even a chance, we don’t take it.”

In the past few weeks we have heard former players like Kurt Warner claim that he would rather his sons not play football for fear of what the future effects will bring to their bodies and minds when they are through playing football. But for Smith, a proud father whose son will begin playing football at the middle school level next year, he has no problem with it.

“I understand those concerns fully,” Smith said. “I am a parent too and have a son that is going to play football next year for the first time in the junior high level, but I have confidence in what we are putting him in and the coaches that are coaching him.”

On the contrary, I talked to a mother of a high school football player who wished to remain nameless and she voiced her strong opinions against her son playing football, but she said that her son was OK with what it could do to his body over time and accepted that he was going to get hurt playing the game that he loved.

“He was just not going to quit playing,” she said with some obvious pain in her voice. “He wants to play ball and I told him all about what could happen to his body and brain if he continues to play, but he accepted it all and still wanted to go out there and play. So, yes, I am concerned for my baby, but I know that he is going to be safe and that his coaches are going to look after him and keep him healthy.”

And while the concerns from parents are justifiable and can never be taken out of the equation, it is important to separate the impact that a collision or tackle at the high school level between two players can have versus the impact of a collision or tackle at the NFL level and understand that while the actions are similar in nature, the forces are much, much different.

“Obviously the more attention things get, the more concerned people are. Sometimes those are validated concerns and sometimes they’re not,” said Drake. “The thing about sports at any level is that the higher you go, the more concentrated those things are going to be. In other words, the impact of two NFL players running into each other is going to be more significant that two high school kids running into each other, simply because they are bigger and stronger and the collisions are happening faster.”

“I realize that things are relative but you are seeing the elite of the elite, 300-pount guys that can run sub-5 second forties, running into each other. You are seeing skill guys that weight 200-plus pounds running 4.4 and having those collisions. You don’t see quite as many on our level simply because you are not dealing with that amount of talent.”

For the record, there are nearly 100,000 high school seniors that play football across the country each year and approximately 215 will make an NFL roster down the road. That means that only 0.2 percent of the total number of high school seniors will play in the NFL. This is important to take into account when people try to discuss long-term effects from concussions from playing football. We hear all about the data and the research that comes from former NFL players about the effects that the game has had on their bodies, but that comes from 20-plus years of football from the pee-wee level through the NFL and accounts for thousands and thousands of possible collisions. On the other hand, the majority of players have half of the possible collisions occur to have effects on their bodies simply because they only play for 8-10 years of their lives. So while there is plenty of research on the long-term effects of an NFL player, where is the research on the long-term effects of a player who stopped playing after high school?

“I guess what I would like to see is more statistics about kids that are involved in high school football that are negatively affected by head injury or trauma then the statistics of the NFL guys,” said Drake. “Most kids that play the game of football don’t ever play in the NFL. I mean there is a very small percent of guys that make it that far. Let’s say that I am an NFL player and I play for five, six, seven years in the league. How many collisions have I had over that time? How many opportunities have I had to be in those collisions there? If I have had head trauma, how many times has it occurred to me in that whole span of time that I have been exposed to the game?”

“Take this versus the kid that finished playing in high school, which is the majority of all people that play the game. How many players have been exposed to it and what are the long-term effects of that majority of kids who play? If we are not careful, we are not really comparing apples to apples. We are comparing a guy who has experienced that and has played the game for over 20 years versus a guy that played Little League and high school and has been exposed to half that time period. So I would be curious to see some statistics about that.”

While I never participated in high school football, I grew up absolutely loving the game and trying to watch and learn as much as I could about the sport and how it was played. Football is a fabric of American sports and a right of passage for many males in many small towns across the country, especially in Texas. In the movie Friday Night Lights, every male who could walk and talk normally was expected to participate in football, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. People are drawn to football because of the sheer intensity and violence of the sport, and the ability to see all different forms of athletes, whether that be big, small, muscular, and scrawny, try and hit each other in the mouth in an effort to get the ball into the end zone.

So, What’s Next?

On the high school level, continued advancements of helmet technology, coaching proper technique, and stricter protocol on how to deal with concussions will create a greater sense of comfort among parents and coaches that their kids are going to play as safe as possible. However, any future generational drop-off of participation in high school football is not ultimately up to them but rather to the NFL and the former players of the game. If continued lawsuits are filed against the league and there are further rules set into place, like the possible elimination of the kickoff as a whole, then there could become such a negative backlash from young players and parents that no longer attract kids from wanting to participate in the game. Also, evidence of long-term mental effects on players who participated at any level of football could be so significant that there is an uprising of parents that no longer want to expose their child into the sport, to prevent them from one day suffering from depression or other mental illnesses when they grow up.

It is hard to imagine there one day being a nice Sunday afternoon in October and not pulling up a chair in front of the TV to watch a good game of football, but if we all do not look at this subject with extreme care and objectivity and take in all the information that we can possibly receive, we could be on the fast track to seeing a tremendous game die before our very eyes without the proper means. I am all for the safety of players at any level and never ever wish for injuries upon anybody, but there is a reason why we all stand up when we see a big hit in a game and make weird sounds with our mouths when a middle linebacker “blows up” a running back breaking through the offensive line. It is simply because that is the game of football we all know and love, and if those players at any level are willing to put their bodies on the line to play the game and to provide us with entertainment for three hours, then we are always going to celebrate those moments of high impact collisions because of what they provide us fans with emotionally.

So before you take a stance on one side or the other on this subject, take a step back and evaluate every angle you possibly can. If continued technological advancements continue to be provided that give coaches and officials more insight in how to keep the game of football as safe as possible, then we will always be able to enjoy the great game of football regardless of what night we are watching it on. Let’s just hope that no rash decisions are made that affect the long-term outlook of the game and that one day 20 or 30 years down the road, we don’t wake up one Thanksgiving morning and realize all we have to look forward to is family and food.

I think we all need a little football with our turkey.

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