What is the right number of blows to the head?

NFL tries to keep tackle football safe for kids

October 22, 2012|Susan Reimer

Baltimore Ravens fans are loving the new NFL concussion awareness commercial.

In it, a mother watering the plants on her porch tells New England quarterback Tom Brady that her little boy loves playing football, and she asks what the National Football League is doing to make the game safer.

Mr. Brady hands off to a game official, who talks about rule changes, and then to a doctor, who says the league and the Players Association have donated $100 million to brain injury research.

When Mr. Brady asks to meet "the little guy," the mom introduces her son, Ray Lewis, possibly the only man who can look menacing while drinking a soda.

On the field, the NFL is making examples of players guilty of helmet-to-helmet hits, handing out huge fines and game suspensions whether or not the infraction is flagged by an official.

In the courtroom, however, the NFL is fighting an enormous lawsuit filed by 3,000 former players who say the league knew the danger of concussions and their long-term effect on the brain but withheld that information from them.

Meanwhile, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell visited youth football players in Virginia this month to introduce Heads Up Football, a pilot program funded with NFL dollars that will teach kids and coaches tackling techniques that can prevent head and neck injuries. (Full disclosure: My husband covered this event for another publication.)

Sounds like the fox guarding the chicken coop to me. And Mark Hyman, a Baltimore sportswriter who has published a new book titled "Concussions and Our Kids" with neurosurgeon Robert Cantu, seems to agree.

"The league contends that football can be made safer in terms of the amount of head trauma kids take, and that's the answer," said Mr. Hyman. "The medical community disagrees."

That's because there is simply no safe number of blows to the brain.

Mr. Hyman and Dr. Cantu argue that children should play only flag or touch football until high school, but it isn't particularly safe for the brain then, either.

Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, reports that there are about 100,000 concussions each year among high school football players, more than the next nine sports combined.

But, aside from the mothers out there who feel a little faint with each new concussion headline, there is resistance.

"Parents want tackle football," Mr. Hyman said he learned in researching the book. "Parents want their kids playing the game they see on TV."

Coaches also complain, he said, that athletes won't know how to play the game if they only begin at 14. But he points out that Mr. Brady is doing just fine, and his father held him out until he was a high school freshman.

The NFL, he says, has a stake in these kids, too. "Nine-year-old kids are football fans, 11-year-old kids are football fans. The league benefits from kids not only watching the games on TV but playing and being part of the NFL culture."

The NFL and the Players Association fund USA Football, which estimated that there are 3 million kids between the ages of 6 and 14 playing tackle football — essentially the farm system for high school, college and professional football.

It makes sense that the league would ensure its future by teaching kids and coaches techniques to prevent injuries and teaching parents and players how to recognize a concussion. Failing to do so will result in a shrinking pool of talent, if mothers like Ray Lewis' have anything to say about it.

"I am not saying that the league's sole motivation is to make a buck at the expense of the kids," said Mr. Hyman. "But you have to look critically at who is saying what and what their stake is."

In the end, he said, it is up to the parents to hold their kids out until they are older, to demand athletic trainers at practices and games, to insist on limited contact during the week, to know the symptoms of concussion and to get their child medical help when they see them.

It is interesting to note that Mr. Goodell, at that event in Virginia, said that parents should watch how the league was handling the concussion suffered by Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III.

"You're seeing it with RGIII," Mr. Goodell said. "We use the term progression. ..." And then he described the careful, step-by-step observation of a player before he returns to play.

RGIII was back at practice in three days.

We might give up our Sundays to the National Football League, not to mention our Thursday nights and our Monday nights. But not our responsibility as parents.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at Susan.Reimer@baltsun.com and @Susan Reimer on twitter.com.

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