A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Should society protect kids from concussions?

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., March 11, 12 or 13

Society somehow thinks it’s sensible to check Halloween candy for drugs or poison despite overwhelming evidence that such incidents are an urban myth, but faced with real reports of serious injuries to kids playing football, people seem unperturbed.

But there’s a new proposal in the Illinois legislature to limit tackling in high school football practices, and studies show that’s more logical than radical.

Plus, wouldn’t communities benefit more from healthy adolescents than exciting football programs?

The bill, HB 1205, sponsored by Vernon Hills Democrat Carol Sente, would limit tackling in football practice to once a week. Sente says her idea comes from talking with Dr. Larry Robbins, a neurologist who alerted her to the risks of head injuries to kids. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) says that up to 3.9 million concussions in the United States each year are due to sports-related and recreation-related blows to the head, and an average of more than 173,000 of them are children.

Sente’s proposal also would have local school boards set up response policies concerning concussions, and present information to students and families on head injuries and their risks.

In central Illinois it’s still months before next season and the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) prohibits teams from practicing until summer anyway; high schools such as Peoria Christian and colleges like Bradley University show that good athletic programs need not include football; and WIU’s Leathernecks start off-season football practice next week and wrap up the off-season with their Bruce Craddock Memorial Spring Game April 19, and Knox College’s Prairie Fire don’t start spring practices until May 7 and finish May 25 – all with controlled contact, according to new head coach Damon Tomeo, who said, “D-III’s rules state that we cannot be in pads for practice, makes having a ‘exhibition game’ very challenging.”

So maybe it’s the right time to think about this.

Most people are aware of the hundreds of National Football League veterans suing about brain damage sustained in their careers, some leading to dementia or suicide. NFL players are adults, of course, presumably making informed decisions about risks they’re willing to take. Kids can’t give legal informed consent.

One of the ongoing consequences from head injuries is Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which cannot be detected while someone’s alive; only in post-mortem procedures can it be confirmed.

“As distinct from Alzheimer’s, which kills patients, on average, seven to 12 years after diagnosis, CTE sufferers can live for decades in pitch-black confusion and distress,” writes reporter Sean McCabe in Rolling Stone. “It’s a fate you would wish on no one you know, least of all your strapping teenage son.”

About 8 million American high schoolers take part in sports annually, according to the American Journal of Sports Medicine (AJSM), and concussion risks start at the youth level. Emergency-room visits increased 60% in the last 10 years, and in 2009, there were 248,000 such cases. AJSM reports that football is the main culprit, mostly from player-to-player contact.

Researchers correlate CTE in high school fatalities and hidden damage to kids whose head injuries were never treated – or, sometimes, even noticed. Young athletes now are increasingly exposed to blunt-force trauma, they’re bigger and faster than years ago (although most young athletes have still-developing neck muscles incapable of preparing for hits), and protocols to deal with possible concussions are lightly enforced at many high schools.

Besides post-concussion syndrome (PCS), high school athletes are especially vulnerable to second-impact syndrome, where immature nervous systems may have players appear to have recovered despite remaining very sensitive to another blow.

Sente’s bill seems like a longshot for passage – a “Hail Mary” play, if you will. But experts say such a measure is needed.

“A high school football player who suffers multiple concussions is no less in danger of lifetime problems than a pro who does,” writes reporter Jeff Fecke, who lists nine football players who died as a result of brain trauma, including ex-Bears safety Dave Duerson.

Dr. Robert Cantu, a neurologist with the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy and a concussion authority, recommends parents prevent kids from tackle football until age 14.

In January, the Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry published findings that scientists are improving ways to detect CTE, which could lead to new treatments and maybe even preventive measures. However, long-term, repetitive injuries – even to youngsters – can cripple or kill athletes years after they sustained head injuries.

As far as the bill in Springfield, it might have a chance if it’s viewed as common sense – in a sports context, according to former college football player and professional wrestler Chris Nowinski, author of “Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis.”

He said, “We’ve put it pitch-count limits to protect kids’ elbows. Why wouldn’t we do likewise to protect their brains?”

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