Sports

August 2, 2013

Tom Lindley: When it comes to football, are we using our heads?

It’s time for a return to some old-fashioned, smash-mouth football, which is a good thing unless you happen to be the one getting smashed in the mouth, I guess.

The violent nature of the game, which is built around high-speed collisions and jarring tackles, sells tickets. But perhaps at no other time have players, coaches, fans and administrators been more worried about football’s inherent dangers, especially those linked to traumatic brain injuries.

Concussions are a hot topic in all sports — not just on football fields but any playing surface. Not just for boys and men, but also girls and women. But in few sports are head injuries as much of a focus as they’ve become in football.

We fans live and die with each heart-pounding play, but football is a vicarious experience that comes with a heavy price. We’re attracted by the game’s fierce nature but worry about its brutality, fearing the players have become too big, too strong and too fast.

The suicides of several former high-profile NFL stars — Ray Easterling, Dave Duerson and especially Junior Seau — have created a frenzy. Among the most concerned are parents who question if allowing their children to play football and other impact sports is the right thing to do.

“We get the Junior Seau question a lot. ‘Is that what my kid is going to be like?’” Dr. Michael O’Brien of the sports concussion clinic at Boston’s Children’s Hospital told The New York Times. “Parents are sitting in our office wringing their hands with nervousness.”

The bad news is that concussions are serious injuries, and reports show more and more athletes are being treated for them. In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that emergency rooms treated 173,000 temporary brain injuries related to sports or recreation among people younger than 19. Worse yet, the CDC reported, hospital visits rose 60 percent in the previous decade.

The good news is that concussions generally aren’t fatal, and players return to practice after a few days or a week. The worry should be that players return to action too quickly; a repeat blow leads to a much more serious medical condition.

The problem is drawing attention from all corners. Everyone, especially those connected to football, are looking for guidelines and solutions — anything to give them comfort they’re doing the right things to protect players. But if finding ways to significantly reduce the number of brain injuries is the goal, the likelihood of that happening anytime soon isn’t promising.

Doctors in sports medicine report there is no simple test to confirm whether an athlete has even had a concussion. A brain scan might disclose bleeding, but in most cases a diagnosis involves a doctor conducting a neurological exam. Symptoms include confusion, headaches, vomiting, irritability and drowsiness, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.

In football, some believe constructing a better helmet will greatly reduce brain trauma.

So far, that hasn’t happened.

Helmets are designed to prevent skull fractures, and they earn good marks for that. However, they don’t protect athletes from brain injuries.

Bill Simpson, recognized as auto racing’s “Godfather of Safety,” set out to build a better football helmet using carbon fibers and Kevlar. Professional players gave it good reviews. But asked if he could claim that his helmet would reduce concussions, Simpson was adamant in responding to a question from a Popular Science reporter: “Oh, hell no. I would never make a claim like that.”

Most serious injuries result from the whip action involving the head. It’s the force of the collision that causes the brain to move within the skull, resulting in a concussion. What worries researchers the most are repeated hits and the long-term impact of numerous concussions. It’s also an area that doctors understand least.

In the mean time, litigation is mounting. The NFL and NCAA face major lawsuits from players who claim they sustained life-altering brain injuries. High schools aren’t immune from legal action, either.

The dilemma is challenging at the start of a new football season. Rabid fans love their sport. Administrators have a responsibility to protect players without changing the game.

Is there a way to strike a balance, to protect both the sport and its players?

That’s a question that so far remains unanswered.

Tom Lindley is a national sports columnist for CNHI News Service. You can write to him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

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