Amy Donaldson: We need real conversations about the dangers of football

Published: Sunday, March 17 2013 3:20 p.m. MDT

Greg Fox, from Baltimore, Md., photographs the Roman numerals for NFL Super Bowl XLVII as they they float on the Mississippi River Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013, in New Orleans. The city hosedt the football game between the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens on Sunday.

Charlie Riedel, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

After reading a column by Noah Kulwin on why he decided not to buy Cal season football tickets, I had an interesting internal debate about the stupidity or courage of his stand.

In the column (sent to me by the parent of a college football player), Kulwin wrote that he decided not to support his favorite college football team because of the “medical evidence surrounding the sport’s destructive nature.” He cited studies, one by the Cleveland Clinic, confirming that even without concussions, football players may suffer long-term effects because of the violent nature of the game.

He quoted writers who’d already taken a stand on the issues, concluding that it is impossible to make football safe.

And finally, he concludes that we are sacrificing the long-term health and well-being of young people for millions of dollars and our own selfish entertainment.

I read the article twice, grappling with outrage, guilt, fear and a lot of other feelings for about a sport I love. Because while I love football — maybe especially high school football — I am afraid for these young athletes.

First of all, let me say that I don’t think the only solution to this problem lies simply with eliminating football from our culture. In the 2011-2012 school year, 1,095,993 boys and 1,604 girls played 11-man high school football in America. The sport is growing in popularity — among participants and fans. Also, activity puts one at greater risk for any kind of injury.

Consider statistics compiled by the Centers for Disease Control from 2001-2009 regarding those under age 19: While football accounted for 25,376 traumatic brain-related injuries seen in emergency rooms, bicycling accounted for 26,212. But also in those numbers is this reality: Once a boy hits age 10 to 19, the most common cause of a traumatic brain injury-related ER visit is football.

The conflict I feel comes with knowing how young children can start playing football. Are we unintentionally getting our children hooked on a sport when they’re 8 years old (in some states even younger), which makes analysis at an older, more critical age almost impossible? How can we expect them to understand the value of life at 40 or 50 when they're 15?

And who are we hurting most? What are the demographics of football players? How many of them grew up in poverty, where they feel their only hope to attend college is a football scholarship? How many troubled young people has football saved from troubled paths? And how many trade everything for the very minute possibility that some day they might play in the NFL?

We assume that professional players are making an informed career choice. But are they really? They sacrifice their entire lives for a game they love, a game in which they believe they can succeed. So are they really going to choose something different because there is the possibility of health consequences when they’re middle-aged?

I am also uncertain, because I believe that medical research is just beginning to tell us the many ways in which the violence of football changes the brain chemistry of the players.

We know from looking at the brains of long-time professionals that the potential for serious problems is pretty high. What will we learn about how the sport impacted junior high and high school players? While the NFL changes only because lawsuits will force it to do so, what will change college, high school and youth football? Can the game be made safe enough? What about eliminating tackle football among young children? Does that reduce the risks? Or just make the youngsters less skilled when they’re older?

With the improvements in helmets, concussion diagnosis and medical treatment for head-related injuries, there has also been a decrease in the size of shoulder pads. Athletes are bigger, faster and stronger. Despite fines to alleviate certain kinds of dangerous hits, the culture still values a kind of brutality that rewards rough play.

So what should we do? First and foremost, we should talk more.

These conversations need to occur immediately but without defensiveness, without fear and without extremes. We need to be honest with each other and ourselves about what science really does — and does not — show us with these studies. Maybe there are solutions that can be easily accessed; maybe there are not.

But every time I admire a hit that lays a player on his back, I also feel a pang of conscience. Should this be what we celebrate in athletics? Are we trading the futures of our children for sport? And if so, what do we do to rectify the situation?

How do the injuries sustained in football compare with rugby, lacrosse or hockey?

If it’s just a difference of opinion, then maybe the answer is just more information, more education. That way the parents of young boys who dream of playing football from the time they can talk will be armed with information about ways to better protect them.

Risks are part of sports.

Risks are part of life.

And most of us who choose athletic, active lifestyles understand that sometimes our decisions put our health, safety and maybe our lives in jeopardy. But we usually understand those risks in ways that I fear we do not understand head injuries and football.

Twitter: adonsports

Email: adonaldson@desnews.com

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