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May 05, 2010

What High School Football Players Need -- More Brain Damage

When you look for thought-leaders in Pennsylvania football, when you look for the folks who shape young people before they get to the pro teams, you think about the head coaches at Pitt, Penn State, and Temple. When the Roethlisberger scandal brings public focus to the arrogant thuggery of some athletes, and the tendency for athletes to believe that normal rules don't apply to them, I expected these head coaches to exert their leadership among their youthful charges and set the bar for acceptable behavior. Take the initiative, set a new standard, etc; do the "vision thing".

The Pitt and Penn State head coaches got together Wednesday and made a public call for: football practice in the spring time, so that Pennsylvania kids will be able to keep up with athletes from states that already have spring training for football.

From the Post-Gazette: "Penn State coach Joe Paterno and Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt today met with the executive board of the Pennsylvania State Football Coaches Association (PSFCA) and offered their support for the plan, which has not yet been proposed to the PIAA. Temple coach Al Golden also backs the idea, but he could not attend today's meeting at the Lasch Football Building."

When I think about football players, I think about Steeler "Iron Mike" Webster who suffered from amnesia, dementia, depression, and acute bone and muscle pain. At the end he lived out of his pickup truck or train stations until he died at a young age, a victim of all those hits to his head. He had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

Research indicates that head trauma is a cumulative function. From Wikipedia: It has been speculated that Webster's ailments were due to wear and tear sustained over his playing career; some doctors estimated he had been in the equivalent of "25,000 automobile crashes" in over 25 years of playing football at the high school, college and professional levels.

I recommend Malcolm Gladwell's excellent article, Offensive Play, for an interesting read. In one paragraph discussing the football controversy in 1905 (yes, 1905) a professor at the University of Chicago called it a “boy-killing, man-mutilating, money-making, education-prostituting, gladiatorial sport". The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Gladwell talks about a program at the University of North Carolina called the Sports Concussion Research Program. The SCRP uses a program called HITS to put sensors in the helmets of every UNC football player, and measures every g-force impact the player's brain receives. The HITS data suggest that practice — the routine part of the sport — can be as dangerous as the football games themselves.

A football player’s real issue isn’t simply with repetitive concussive trauma. It is, as the concussion specialist Robert Cantu argues, with repetitive subconcussive trauma. It’s not just the handful of big hits that matter. It’s lots of little hits, too.

That’s why so many of the ex-players who have been given a diagnosis of C.T.E. were linemen: line play lends itself to lots of little hits. The HITS data suggest that, in an average football season, a lineman could get struck in the head a thousand times, which means that a ten-year N.F.L. veteran, when you bring in his college and high-school playing days, could well have been hit in the head eighteen thousand times: that’s thousands of jarring blows that shake the brain from front to back and side to side, stretching and weakening and tearing the connections among nerve cells, and making the brain increasingly vulnerable to long-term damage.

Football leagues now hire mobile scanning units to get baseline scans on young players' heads so that years later, comparisons can be made. Here's a nutty thought: any activity that asks high school kids to pose for "before" pictures to measure subsequent brain damage should be considered child abuse.

When I think about what football players need, two things come to mind:
  1. they need to be taught that they're not demigods above civil society
  2. they need to be protected from the edutainment industry that profits from their smashing their brains against hard objects.
Paterno and Wannstedt might have called for fewer full-contact sessions per year. They could have taken action to improve their student's chances of not ending up like Mike Webster. They should have instituted a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault or offenses involving drinking.

Instead, they used their positions of responsibility to encourage Pennsylvania high school students to smash their heads more often. Here we go Steelers, here we go...


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