In our opinion: Head injury season

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 23 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Few people today would deny that repeated concussions may lead to long-term health problems. As fall approaches, however, parents, coaches and athletes sometimes pretend the problem doesn't exist.

Instead, they need to begin demonstrating they know how to take seriously this unfortunate by-product of contact sports. Failing to do so won't necessarily absolve them from consequences later on.

News broke late last week that seven former NFL football players, including former BYU quarterback Jim McMahon, are suing the NFL for the way it has handled concussions through the years. The players claim that for many years the league taught its players to lead with their heads while tackling. They also claim the league repeatedly denied any connection between head injuries and later health problems despite knowing about such connections since the leather-helmet days of the 1920s.

The National Hockey League, meanwhile, has held meetings about its own concussion problem. The Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby missed much of last season with a head injury and still feels the effects.

But perhaps the most serious aspect of this problem involves young athletes at high school and college levels. Two years ago, USA Today did a report on research from the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, which found that 40.5 percent of high school athletes who sustain concussions return to play prematurely. Of the football players who were knocked unconscious, 16 percent returned to play that same day. The study found football and boys' and girls' soccer led to the most concussions.

There is evidence, however, that even cheerleading is dangerous. The Arizona Interscholastic Association ranks cheerleading second only to football in concussions.

Speaking of Arizona, a new law there requires all male and female athletes who want to participate in any high school sport to undergo a 50-minute concussion education program. The point is to get them to recognize the symptoms of problems, making them more aware of when they, or their teammates, may need attention.

In the meantime, private businesses are coming up with technology to help recognize problems. Two companies, Battle Sports Science and Impakt Protective Inc., are developing sensors that will fit inside football or hockey helmets and alert coaches when a player sustains a serious blow to the head. One device sets off a light that is clearly visible; the other sends a message wirelessly to a computer or mobile device.

Neither device can prevent concussions. Nor can they change the culture of contact sports, in which hard hits are seen as praiseworthy. Amid discussions about concussions last season, several NFL players spoke out against attempts to "dilute" the game by removing its inherent violence.

But then, in sports it may be easier to bring new safety procedures up from the ranks of the young, the way ear flaps for batting helmets migrated from little league to Major League Baseball. For that to happen, state high school athletic associations need to get serious about curbing unnecessary violence and instituting new safety procedures.

Sports can teach many valuable lessons as they mold character and instill discipline. They should not, however, endanger the long-term health of participants.

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