How much hitting will football players do?Published 9:05am Tuesday, August 14, 2012
Column: Pothole Prairieviews
It’s about football season, and I have to ask you, at least the readers who are parents of boys, will you let them play football?
A few weeks ago I listened online to a June conversation at the Aspen Ideas Festival between several football experts. The topic was “Can Football Be Saved From Itself?”
They mentioned how even some former football stars, such as Troy Aikman and Kurt Warner, aren’t letting their sons play football because of issues with concussions. Sure the sport also has issues with painkillers, social woes, you name it, but brain injuries are the big deal right now. And the Aspen talk was about a month after legendary linebacker Junior Seau shocked the sports world by committing suicide.
Believe me, I like watching football. Skol Vikings! I even played football in high school, but I wasn’t very good, so I warmed the sidelines. It was the only varsity sport available for boys to play in the fall at my tiny high school, and boys were expected to go out. Still, the knowledge I gained thanks to taxpayers aids me nowadays, um, as a fan, I suppose. I know things like the numbering scheme, how to use the threads to throw a spiral, the proper way to hit a tackling dummy or even the single-wing offense.
But we have a lot more knowledge of the repurcussions of football now than we did back then. It’s an issue for parents. It wasn’t then.
In Aspen, Chris Nowinsky, co-director of the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy and co-founder of the Sports Legacy Institute, made an interesting point about brain injuries:
“You know, I think, the big question going forward is, you know, we have to agree and we have to appreciate that the football that we played for the last 50 to a 100 years was far too dangerous, for anybody involved. I mean in the brain bank, you know, it’s not a great way to study people post-mortem to figure out how many people have this, you know, 18 to the first 19 NFL former players we studied have it.
“Every college football player we studied have it. We found it in high school football players as young as 17. It’s bad, and so what we’re — now that we finally have agreed that this is real, we’re trying to figure out, can football survive? And what we’re — the way we’re doing it is not unlike the cigarette industry. We’re going with light cigarettes. Well, what if we cut the number of hits to the head in half and we treat the concussions and we educate and the medical care gets better?
“Fingers crossed, that works, but, you know, that’s all you have, is hope. The science isn’t there to say where we’ve taken it or where we’re going to take it, we’ll be safe enough.”
Then later, when asked about solutions, Nowinsky addressed the idea of hit counts:
“You know, the No. 1 thing you can do to make youth football safer is to lower the exposure, and over half the exposure comes in practice. So what we’ve been pushing forward, the NFL was actually the first to move on this. They can only have one day of hitting a week in practice, and the Ivy League said, all right, two days is the max. Pop Warner then went to three hours a few weeks ago.
“So no more — you went to 10 hours a week of kids colliding to three hours. That’s going to dramatically reduce it. And one of the things that we are pushing through Sports Legacy to advance that discussion of, you know, less is more is something called the hit count.
“Basically we — now that we have sensors and helmets, we can count how many times people are hit and we saw it happen in baseball of pitch counts.
“There is a little bit of evidence that said, you can wear out your elbow if you throw too many times. …
“And we’ve sat around and said, gee, I think your brain is more important than your elbow. And so why don’t we limit how many times you get hit in the head and maybe mandate rest in between hitting days. And I think that’s — again, that’s the fastest way to get to lower trauma. Is it enough? It’s still high. And then you’re getting into — you have to diagnose your concussions.
“We’ll miss 90 percent of them because children don’t know to speak up. We don’t have the technology to see them.”
Interesting, huh? I like football, but I also very much care about the athletes we cover.
If you are going to allow your son to go out for football, might I politely suggest you ask a coach about the number of days and hours a week the boys will hit during practice.
Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.