High School Football is Safe to Play

Posted: May 21, 2012 by vindanton in Pro Sports, Uncategorized

By: Nick Scerbo

The tragic death of Junior Seau rocked the football world.  The long-time linebacker for the San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots joined former Bears safety Dave Duerson and Falcons safety Ray Easterling, who both committed suicide due at least in part to depression caused by the cumulative effect of repeated concussions.

In a recent interview a hesitant and shaky looking Jim McMahon, once the brash quarterback of the Super Bowl Champion Chicago Bears, admitted that he had virtually no short-term memory left.  It was a heartbreaking sight.

Its been a rough year for the NFL on that front; the image of the retired football player is rapidly merging with the image of the punch drunk old fighter, laid low by too many blows to the head.  Prompted by these tragedies, and by the increased focus on concussions, a number of commentators have questioned whether parents should allow their children to play football at all.

A back-page column in Sports Illustrated raised that issue; even former players like Rams and Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner and Giants linebacker Harry Carson raised the issue…Carson going so far as to say that no parent should ever allow their sons to play any form of football at any level (Warner took the more guarded position that he wasn’t sure whether he wanted his sons to play the game).  And here, a very good thing (concussion awareness) has been taken well past the point of sanity.

As much as I love the NFL on Sundays, you can make an argument that the men who play the game are pushing their bodies past the limits that they were meant to endure.  Today’s stars run faster and hit harder than ever before, breaking limits and reaching heights that the greats of the past could hardly have imagined.

Figuring in four years of high school and another four years of college football, an NFL player who enjoys just a “short” five year career has played the game for 13 years and for at least 134 games.  Players like Brett Favre and Seau who play until they approach forty are reaching the thirty-year, 300-game mark.  Sacrificing their bodies in ways that damage more than their brains, these men are left to live their lives with battered, shattered knees, gnarled fingers, early arthritis, and aches and pains daily that will never go away.

I don’t know if I’d want a friend or a loved one to embark on a long-term NFL playing career.  Notice something about this, though?

We’re talking about men who have played football, and played it at the highest, hardest-hitting levels, for decades.  We’re talking about men who suffered repeated concussions, multiple concussions in a single game (one of Seau’s teammates suggested that the linebacker would suffer as many as five concussions per game and finished his career with over 1,000 such traumatic injuries).

That’s not the average experience of a high school football player; the average high school player dresses for just forty games and starts in no more than twenty of them.  If he’s suffered four concussions, he’s suffered a lot; if he’s showing signs of concussion symptoms, he’s pulled for the game and will probably miss the next few as well.  He isn’t going to be suffering nearly enough concussions for the cumulative impact of many concussions to become a concern.

Concussions are no doubt a serious issue at the high school level, and they are treated with the appropriate level of concern.  The concerns, though, are different—the NFL and perhaps colleges need to worry about the detrimental effects of many concussions over a long time span.

High schools need to worry about the immediate impact of concussions on learning and the proper short-term treatment for a small number of concussions.  This isn’t a tough-guy editorial that is writing off the problems of the retired NFL players as something to be ignored or dismissed, or to say that we should just suck it up and intentionally incur traumatic brain injuries.

The point, though, is that only by suffering many, many concussions can make an athlete reach the point that men like Seau, Duerson, and Easterling reached.  It is an article aimed at deflating some hyperbole-driven myths.  A single concussion is not going to drive a young man to depression, and playing high school football is not going to expose teenagers to the trial and tribulations of retired NFL players.

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