Social and Political Commentary

Coming clean on high school football risks.

... City makes a big deal about concussions but goes quiet about the devestation they can cause.

by Joe Sullivan

The editorial page of the March 20 edition of the Boston Globe carried a piece about Chris Borland, an outstanding rookie linebacker of the NFL San Francisco 49ers.

Chris, by any account, was looking forward to earning $2.4 million over the next four years. He was an outstanding player but, at only 24 years old, he decided to quit the game. The reason he gave, according to the Globe, was that he was troubled by evidence of brain damage from repeated head trauma.

Although the Globe didn't say so, Chris quit not because of any certainty that he would incur brain damage but that playing football put him at risk. Brain damage is a risk of playing football. He was no longer willing to take that risk.

The conclusion of the Globe's editorial was how Borland became an instant role model for youth and parents in a nation increasingly discomfited by football.

The message resonates in Melrose.

To think this is not a consideration in the home of the Super Bowl Melrose Red Raiders is to be unreal. Chris Borland is an adult football player who made a decision about a risk he was no longer willing to make.

In Melrose it's not the football player who makes the decision, it's the player's parents. Like Chris Borland, they're the ones who have to decide whether the risk of playing football, degenerative brain damage, is worthwhile for their son to take.

A question is what information has the city made available so that a parent knows about the risk and is informed about some of the devastating consequences linked to head trauma.

The city's required reading.

Before a student can play on the football team one of his parents must complete an online course about concussions. It covers identifying the signs of concussion and what to do once a concussion is detected.

The School Committee issued an 18-page report covering Concussion Procedures for students, grades 6 through 12 participating in any interscholastic sport.  The report is a follow on to a State Law that establishes an interscholastic athletic head injury safety training program. The School committees report establishes the procedures and required forms that will help implement the State program which includes the marching band.

Memories of a Super Bowl Parent.

In a conversation with a parent whose son played in the Super Bowl, the mandated online concussion report is remembered but an 18-page report on concussions is not.

When asked if the mandated concussion course covered long-term effects of traumatic brain injury the parent said that's not what was remembered. The course was more about recognizing the signs of concussion.  

The Frontline online story that appeared on 3/21/15 about Borland's retirement said that chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE,) a debilitating brain disease, cites new evidence that even high school players can develop CTE. Another earlier Frontline story, "League of Denial", viewed last October, was a documentary about how playing football caused brain damage.

Disturbing news about concussion.

The October documentary went on to show that Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist who collaborates with BU researchers, had identified some sobering conclusions about CTE. It was a degenerative disease ie, it got worse over time, and resulted in rage, impulsivity and depression progressing to confusion and memory loss and finally advanced dementia with the brain shrinking to half its size.

Aren't these the risks associated with playing football? Shouldn't the information be available to parents who are deciding whether their son should play the game?

How can parents evaluate risk if they are told only about concussions while leaving out the conditions which concussion can cause?

This kind of reporting is reminiscent of the warning, "Smoking may be hazardous to your health." This certainly wasn't a suitable substitution for a warning that smoking can cause cancer.

A disease that's long in the making.

Not everyone who plays football will develop CTE. The disease is a relative recent discovery. Although linking CTE to brain damage is recent it must have existed long before it was discovered. It must have affected players over many generations yet everyone knows former football players who don't exhibit any of the dreadful consequences of CTE.

The effects of concussion, like smoking, are long term but the hits you take now are part of what effects you later. The state and city's efforts seem to be directed toward recognizing concussions and preventing the frequencies of concussions. Concussed players can't return until they go through a protocol that attempts to determine their fitness to play. On the other hand it doesn't take concussive type hits to result in CTE.

It's the accumulative effects of head banging that contribute to it.   

There can be some great benefits that come from football. For a talented player the opportunity to be selected to go to a great university and a possibility to go on to the NFL  must be an almost irresistible appeal. This opportunity can hardly be ignored, even welcomed, by his parents. To walk away from such a wonderful benefit because of the consequences of an injury that may never happen presents a confounding choice to the parents.

A SuperBowl Mom's anxiety.

The feeling was aptly described by another parent of a SuperBowl player. This time it was the mother of a player who started participating in the sport when he was in the 8th grade. She had hoped he would try it and not like it well enough to keep on, but her son turned out to be a terrific player who loves the game. Like his father, he'll play in college. Even so, she says she holds her breath every time he takes the field.

What makes the decision to play even more difficult for a Melrose Raider parent is that the issue, traumatic brain injuries from playing the game, wasn't even known until his or her son was a member of the super-bowl bound football team. It was the conditions the brain injuries could cause in later life, dementia, degenerative brain disease, and suicidal tendency that puts so much pressure on deciding. Provided you know about them.

If the parents were presented with the choice when their son was 10 or 11 years old they might have made a different decision. That is a speculation. But there is one thing that isn't. Our city has the obligation to make a more thorough effort in describing the real risks of playing football to the parents who are trying to form decisions about their sons playing the game.  

April 3, 2015



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