Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Knock, Knock, Who's There?

Football is the most popular sport in America. The Dallas Cowboys just opened

a new $1.4 billion stadium, the most expensive ever, until the New York Giants open their

$1.6 billion stadium in a few months. College football budgets eat up so much money, many

minor sports with more participants have to be dropped for lack of funding. Football is

played on the high school, Pop Warner, and Pee Wee levels as well. Whether the athlete

is 10, 20, 30, or 40, football is designed to be a collision sport and a new study says it is

doing some real harm.

A new study commissioned by the NFL, and conducted by the University of

Michigan, found Alzheimer's disease and other memory-related diseases are diagnosed

in former players at a rate 19 times the normal rate for men ages 30-49. The study also

found former NFL players had higher rates of kidney problems and arthritis than did

the regular population.

When I was growing up, one of the most popular 49ers was Charlie Krueger.

He was a behemoth of a man who played for many years. In Oakland, Jim Otto was

the center for the Raiders. Both men ended their careers with knees in such bad shape

that just getting out of bed was a major accomplishment each morning. Yet, they may

be the lucky ones. Steve Young had to quit football because he could not afford one more

concussion. One more bad hit could prove fatal. He is not unique. Just last week, Florida

quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow was knocked out of the game with

a severe concussion and yet there is talk of him playing next week.

One can argue professional athletes choose to play and know the risks. College

athletes are adults and they too weigh the risks involved in playing such a violent sport

and make a choice. However, football is played at much younger levels where those

playing are doing so for reasons which span a spectrum from genuine enjoyment to peer

and parental pressure. The child and adolescent brains are not fully formed. What impact

can all those collisions and concussions and injuries have on them is a question parents

and pediatricians and team officials need to take seriously.

The NFL continues to downplay the seriousness of the findings. They claim

plenty of people get Alzheimer's disease and dementia who never picked up a football;

and plenty of former players have never been diagnosed with either problem. They

understand the implications if American parents finally begin to understand the minefield

of physical infirmities they are exposing their children to when they push, pressure, or

allow participation in this sport.

Children and teenagers who play football are more often than not coached by

volunteers or parents or teachers who played the sport at one time. While most coaches

know not to teach a player to drop the head when tackling and rules are designed to limit

helmet-on-helmet contact, both still happen on a frequent basis. It is rare to have a doctor

on the sidelines and minor concussions are treated with observation and the player is

allowed back fairly quickly. Anyone who has seen Muhammad Ali can see the effect of

numerous blows to the head even if the individual blows are not of significant impact.

This is not the first study to connect football to cognitive problems. A study by

the team doctor for the Pittsburgh Steelers found similar results four years ago. The

University of North Carolina published papers from 2005 to 2007; and found a connection

between NFL football and depression, dementia, and other impairment. Yet, the NFL

continues to deny there is any connection.

How many concussions or blows to the head are too many? If you only play

through high school, does your risk still increase? When young children play Pop Warner

and Pee Wee football, with still-forming brains; what is the effect of blows to the head?

Are there studies to answer any of these questions? No. Are parents aware of any of

these dangers? Some are and some aren't; but no parents have been given this new

information, and yet many encourage their children to play.

I coached football at a fairly high level in high school. I coached the offensive

and defensive lines and coached some young men weighing over 260 pounds who were

fast and powerful. They were put through an extensive physical pounding in each game

and some suffered concussions and all experienced numerous blows to the head. None

ever suffered any serious injuries; but I wonder now about when they reach their fifties

and sixties if any of that will come back to haunt them. I wish someone would institute

a study of that population.

What happens on the pro level directly influences every other level of play.

When the pros started to trash talk, it didn't take long to see the same kinds of exchanges

in high school or even grammar school games. Over 30% of all NFL players are over

300 pounds. This supersizing of players is now a trend in college and high school. The

result is an increase in weight-related problems from heart disease to diabetes among

players who put on the weight to play, but don't make college or NFL squads.

There have to be strict rules. A player who experiences a concussion should

automatically be prohibited from playing for several weeks and have to pass a battery

of tests before being allowed to play again. The younger the player, the longer the

prohibition. Watch and see when Florida's Tebow is back playing and decide for yourself

if they put his health at risk in any way.

I love football. I love to watch high school football because most kids will never

play in college or the pros and play for pure joy and to represent their school. However,

I won't be able to watch another game on any level or watch someone helped off the field

because of a head injury and not wonder what the long-term consequences will be for him.

If your child comes to you and wants to play football, how will you answer and what

protections will you demand? What do you think? I welcome your comments and

rebuttals. Please send them to lionoftheleft@gmail.com

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