More than any other team sport, football ranks at the top of the list in America, present company included.
We flock to coliseums to watch our modern-day gladiators wage staged battles for our viewing pleasure. We crave the violence that is at the heart of the game.
To answer Russell Crowe’s Maximus: Yes, we are very entertained.
Every fall of my adult life has been spent watching high school games on Friday nights, college games on Saturdays and the NFL on Sundays. As if that wasn’t enough, I’m usually ready for some Monday Night Football.
In spite of that lifelong fascination and my professional stake in it, I have a confession to make: I would never let my own son play football. No way, Absolutely not. When my 11-year-old has on occasion inquired about the Pop Warner games that go on as we leave the youth soccer fields, I’ve quickly changed the subject. If the day comes when he brings home a permission slip to play football in high school, I will not sign it. Should he kick and scream and ask “WHY?” my response will be simple.
Because I love him too much.
Football is an outrageously dangerous sport. We’ve always known that in the back of our minds as we watch players regularly get carted off fields with broken bones, torn up knees and worst-case spinal injuries. We might comfort our conscience by believing we’re a little more civilized than the Romans because we usually offer polite applause for the fallen instead of a thumbs down to finish them off, but the truth is we’re really no better.
The scope of the danger in football is being realized more every year as we see the players we thought survived the gladiator’s ring get stricken prematurely with all manner of debilitating post-concussion side effects that have long-reaching implications. Brain damage from football injuries has been cited as the cause of problems with memory, depression and other cognitive functions. The risk is considered enhanced for children and young teens who suffer concussions.
Lawmakers in the Georgia House of Representatives heard testimony on Wednesday from several current and former NFL players in support of House Bill 673. The legislation would require a player who shows signs of a concussion be removed from a game or practice and would forbid the player from competing again until being cleared by a licensed health care professional trained in concussion evaluation and management.
It’s something that the NFL is taking very seriously these days, and has established protocols similar to the proposed Georgia law. According to an Associated Press story, 31 states already have similar laws on the books and Georgia is one of 14 currently considering one.
“The athletic trainers in the state support it and we hope it gets passed because we think it’s way overdue,” said Tim McLane, the senior athletic trainer at Medical College of Georgia Hospital and Clinics. “We’ve been saying for a couple or three decades now that this needs to be paid more attention to. It’s a real issue.”
Gone are the days when players would have their “bells rung” in violent collisions, have the cobwebs cleared with a quick snort of smelling salts and be sent right back into the game to do more damage to themselves. It was the manly thing to do in a man’s game where phrases like “suck it up” and “play hurt” are de rigueur.
But young boys shouldn’t be subjected to such reckless macho ideals and coaches should not be trusted to diagnose brain injuries with the tried-and-true examination techniques of asking what day it is and how many fingers they’re holding up.
McLane hopes that well-trained trainers – kept up-to-date on new trends and research – are involved in the entire spectrum of concussion care from the football field to the follow-up assessments.
“We are trained, educated, et cetera on recognizing those and how to handle them,” McLane said. “It’s what we do. To do that in concert with physicians and other professional health care personnel is where it’s at. Often the athletic trainers, especially at the high school level, we’re the front line.”
Georgia Health Sciences University is developing a concussion center that will specialize in objective testing and follow-up assessments to make sure players are safe to return to the field. McLane hopes it will be up and running before spring practice begins.
McLane has two sons and despite knowing what he knows had no qualms about letting one of them play football.
“As long as they were taught proper techniques and conditioning,” McLane said. “And as long as the officials are enforcing the rules that are aimed at reducing the frequency of those (injuries) occurring.”
With an estimated 90,000 concussions per year at the pre-collegiate level, it’s a matter of grave importance. Autopsies to numerous football players who died prematurely have revealed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) that might have been the cause of dementia, depression, memory loss, aggression or other cognitive diseases from repeated concussions or sub-concussions. Similar results have been found in a recent string of deaths involving hockey enforcers who endured repeated blows to the head in their careers. Most experts believe similar trauma was the cause of the Parkinson’s disease suffered by boxer Muhammad Ali.
Americans like our gladiators. Even so, some have seriously speculated that litigation from sports-related head injuries could ultimately lead to a future without football. Far-fetched? Probably, but it’s telling just how aggressively the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell are trying to get ahead of the issue after so many years of neglect.
“We’ve got to start even sooner than high school and make sure it’s handled properly,” McLane said.
For the children whose parents do choose to let them participate in the gladiatorial arts of football (which mine signed off on in middle school before I came to my own senses when puberty accelerated the growth of my peers), they need to be protected as much as possible. There is no outcome of a game worth risking a lifetime of good health by continuing to play after sustaining a head injury.
The safest way to avoid it is abstinence. Risk is part of life, but there are a lot of other great sports out there which don’t so routinely jeopardize life and limb.
But if they choose football, we can’t be safe enough. We all need to use our heads to save our kids.