Perhaps we shouldn’t be writing about the injury crisis in football while the season is in full bloom. No one wants to be a killjoy, nor sissify America’s favorite sport. Then again, maybe this is the right time to write about the dangers that lay silently in the turf for our children and grandchildren.
Let’s dig in and tackle the problem shoulder (not head) on and at least discuss the carnage and consider some sensible changes.
This year we have seen stunning back-to-back reports on the dangers of concussions, actual tissue cell damage to the brains of professional NFL players, and similar pathological findings reported just a month ago in a college player.
On Oct. 18, Rutgers player Eric LeGrand was paralyzed when the defensive tackle suffered a spinal cord injury in the game against Army. He now has no movement below the neck.
Stories and editorials have appeared nationally and locally in newspapers and on television. The NFL has been aggressive in penalizing any blows to the head.
Less noted is that if brain cell damage has been identified (proved at pathology) in pro and college players, can our high school, intermediate school and even elementary school players be far behind?
Let’s assume these brain damages take months or years to develop. If they occurred overnight, that would be far worse. Taking a conservative approach, this means that Medicine does not yet know when the earliest brain changes occur.
Today our children begin playing football early. We have Pop Warner and even “Tiny” leagues.
* Parents and players should be educated on the hazards, risks and complications of football and all those hits. Call it a “football informed consent.” A recent study suggests up to 1,600 head blows in one high school season. Our children have the right to know beforehand. You, as parents, have the protective responsibility.
* Discuss and reconsider the earliest ages at which we should permit formal tackle football leagues.
* Currently, padding is on the inside of the helmet. How about firm rubber cushioning on the forehead and back of the helmet to lessen frontal lobe, occipital lobe and contre coup (transmitted to the other side) injuries.
* Admittedly difficult, we need to redefine the culture from “kill” the guy to “tackle” the guy. If coaches can teach new players how to maim they can teach them how not to main. If players are ejected, suspended and/or fined (as in pro football) they will learn the new rules. The “better outcomes” may take years to observe and prove but in the long run the rules will protect both the offense and defense.
* There is no reason to ever play football on turf over concrete. (This applies more to the NFL). The reasons given by the league are pure hot air. If we can send cameras to take pictures of Mars we can grow grass inside a stadium in cold weather. Call in some consultants from Northern California who can grow “grass” anywhere.
* Harsher penalties for coaches who purposely teach bodily harm.
* A blood test recently developed by the U.S. Army can diagnose mild traumatic brain damage or concussion. The test looks at specific proteins (S-100) that are released into the blood stream when brain cells are damaged. When approved, perhaps all players should get a baseline level for future reference.
The youth player pool is magnitudes greater (millions vs. thousands) than the NFL. When it comes to the first pathologist diagnosing and reporting chronic brain damage in a high school player, I pray that the tissue not be donated by youngsters from Newport Beach.
Until we change our game plan and strategy — the tragedy we fear the most — will most certainly happen. When it comes to playing with the “pigskin” we need to apply a tincture of good old fashioned “horse” sense.