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A Hard Look at the Risks of Tackle Football

The more you hear about brain injuries in contact sports, the tougher it is to send your kid into the game.

About thirteen months ago I was on the football field overseeing what we call The Big Game. It's the final flag football game of the season where the 5- and 6-year-olds get to play on the varsity field complete with bleachers, a concession stand, player introductions and play-by-play announcers. It's a way to get the kids and parents excited about moving up to the next level, which is tackle football.

At game's end some of the parents walked out onto the field to greet their children and escort them over to an area where they would be presented with snacks and trophies.

I happened to be walking behind a mother and her son just as he was asking her about playing tackle football. It sounded as though they’d had the conversation before. She was direct and emphatic with her answer. Everyone within a 20-yard radius heard her explanation.

From atop her midfield soapbox she announced to her son and the rest of us the dangers of football-related concussions. She even quoted a TV news magazine’s recent report on the subject.

I'll admit I was rather annoyed that she'd chosen the 50 yardline of the varsity football field in front of future recruits to announce her anti-tackle-football views. My first thought was to make a public service announcement from the press box regarding the league's decision to spend thousands and thousands of dollars on the latest and greatest in new helmet technology.

I've always had a self-imposed policy that I'd never try to persuade a parent into letting their child play tackle football. I've done my share of recruiting players to join the league, but once a parent says "No," I'm done. No arm twisting and no sport-to-sport injury comparisons. It's not my place.

Before moving on from here I will state the obvious: Every activity has its inherent risks. The Boy (my 13-year-old) and I are road cyclists. Some would argue that with all the distractions tempting today's driver, you'd have to be a nut to ride on the roads with your teen. And they'd be right. For that matter, isn’t there a certain amount of risk in almost everything we do?

So, yes, I thought this mother was being a little unreasonable in not letting her kid play football out of the fear of him getting a head injury. Then came the incident with Cam (Concussion: One Football Player’s Story). Cam missed the entire season after being diagnosed with a concussion as the result of a collision with another player. Because of the October storm and power outage, the season was extended two weeks and he was cleared to fulfill his goal of participating in at least one play during the Championship Game.

Cam had recovered completely and prepared for the start of basketball season. I would love to be typing the perfect ending to his story, but during a game last week he took a knee to the head. It was later confirmed that he sustained yet another concussion and will miss the rest of the basketball season.

A week earlier I had come across one of those court drama TV shows. Kathy Bates played one of the lawyers and I caught the final half hour of the program. Apparently a high school football player had died as a result of a head injury and the parents where suing to have the sport banned from being offered at the school. It sounded ridiculous until they began presenting evidence and statistics along with new studies showing the danger and risks involved when children, teens, and even young adults played a game that involved the constant and often vicious collision of helmets.

The evidence and statistics presented by medical experts was hard to ignore. The show’s writers did an extraordinary job of representing both sides of the issue while ultimately coming to the conclusion that regardless of the ruling, the sobering data surrounding severe head trauma could no longer be taken lightly. I was captivated by the level of angst displayed by both sides of the argument as well as the judge as they tried to determine if the case would make it to a jury. Everyone involved admitted to their love affair with the game as well as its glorious history and iconic status among America’s favorite pastimes. Could a jury be convinced to slam youth and high school football with the death penalty by arguing that it was responsible for killing, disabling, and reducing the life spans of its participants?

The Boy will be entering high school next year and he's already on the head coach's radar. He's got experience and size on his side. His position involves contact on every single play where helmets collide more often than not. He's been lucky so far. Many of his friends have not.

I look at the incident with the flag football mom very differently today. But how do we go about determining whether football is ultimately any more or less dangerous than cycling, mountain climbing, white water rafting, baseball, hockey, or soccer? As parents do we rely on our gut feeling, statistics, trends? Or do we simply give in to the interests and aspirations of our children?

The thought of The Boy playing football at the next level never really concerned me before. But now, "before" seems a little bit more muddled and a lot less innocent. 

Ron Goralski December 10, 2011 at 03:06 PM
...although this does not include a breakdown of head injuries.
Peter Dinella December 10, 2011 at 04:42 PM
Ron, Google it: HS football head injuries. Here's a sample from The Journal of Athletic Training: "A football-related fatality has occurred every year from 1945 through 1999, except for 1990. Head-related deaths accounted for 69% of football fatalities, cervical spinal injuries for 16.3%, and other injuries for 14.7%. High school football produced the greatest number of football head-related deaths. From 1984 through 1999, 69 football head-related injuries resulted in permanent disability. Sixty-three of the injuries were associated with high school football and 6 with college football. Although football has received the most attention, other sports have also been associated with head-related deaths and permanent disability injuries. From 1982 through 1999, 20 deaths and 19 permanent disability injuries occurred in a variety of sports. Track and field, baseball, and cheerleading had the highest incidence of these catastrophic injuries. Three deaths and 3 injuries resulting in permanent disability have occurred in female participants."
Paul McConnell December 11, 2011 at 03:43 AM
Peter, I was using some hyperbole to make a point. That is, our nation has been growing softer and softer and that "over-reacting" to the point of hysteria regarding football head injuries is emblematic. You may disagree and believe that America is getting tougher and tougher versus softer. I absolutely agree that getting "all" the facts and making decisions with the kids best interest at heart equates to good parenting. I humbly submit that the benefits of participating in contact sports - particularly football - outweigh the risks of injury. There is more to good parenting than keeping our children from ever sustaining an injury. Otherwise, we'd keep them locked up. Your stats are interesting, but not really that helpful. You can justify any conclusion based on the stats - particularly whichever one we've already arrived at -- like the lady on the soapbox in Ron's article. She had all the facts - apparently.
Agnes Bushliga-Jackson December 15, 2011 at 11:39 AM
And how, my dear, is letting our kids play violent contact sports making safety a first priority. Problem with Southington is that sports, especially football, is everything. I understand some clowns want to install astroturf at the high school for football. One would think that there are more worthwhile things to get our kids involved in, spend our money on, etc. than football.
Sean Mack January 17, 2012 at 02:51 PM
Hey Ron, This is a great and timely article on concussions in sports,specifically foot ball and other contact sports. My wife recently worked for BIAC, also known as the Brain Injury Association of CT. The organization allows you to see the good and bad of sports, and when you see a survivor of a TBI, traumatic brain injury or a severe concussion, well it put the fear of God into you as a parent, cause you just never now. This is a great organization that is not well known in Ct. I would encourage you to contact someone in that organization as they have a tremendous amount of data/information on sports related concussions. Recently, my son, who plays basketball,baseball, golf, and junior triathalons, has asked us to play tackle football, and we have decided to let him play as of right now.

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