EDITORIAL: Concussions will cost us

I BROKE MY NOSE playing touch football in a vacant lot. It didn’t sour me on the game. In high school practice I broke my little finger. Coach told me to sit down on the tackling dummy and tape my bent finger to the finger next to it. What, so my little finger wouldn’t fall off? I figured teammates were playing with worse injuries.

That was a long time ago, and until recently the public cared only about the athletic injuries of stars. Then scientific research began to find injuries to the rest of us don’t always fade away after a week or a season. One type of injury in particular, concussions, has led to debilitating and tragic consequences for too many players. We might have known this earlier if the National Football League hadn’t thwarted efforts to reveal the toll brain injuries have taken on players. But now the danger of sports-related concussions is better understood.

Most concussions do heal on their own. But the serious and repeated injuries threaten not only the people who choose contact sports as a career, they pose a danger to school-age athletes. Medical researchers believe that the potential risks associated with concussions could be greater for some younger players than for the pros in cases where the athlete experiences repeated trauma. And that brings the issue of sports injury out of major stadiums and plunks in front every school board in Columbia County. It’s not just football; soccer’s on the list. And not just boys, either–concussion affects girls, too.

It’s understandable that some sports fans and parents see this latest concern as another step down a path to a nation of risk-averse sissies. But unrecognized brain injuries associated with contact sports can rob kids of their full potential in life, slowing academic performance and possibly affecting their job performance and overall health.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there are somewhere between 1.6- and 3.8 million sports related concussions annually in the U.S. That’s less than 10% of all sports injuries. One problem with concussions is that current medical imaging technology is not very good at detecting what happens to the brain after a concussion occurs. That doesn’t mean concussions aren’t serious injuries. The latest concussion guidelines say that any trauma to the head–directly or indirectly (think of whiplash)– that produces symptoms is by definition “serious.” What’s more, the docs who treat these cases call for more a more “conservative” approach to cases of young athletes with concussions, not allowing them to return to play until all symptoms have cleared up.

This sounds like common sense. Most coaches and school officials would agree. But during competition pressure can build to accept the assurances of a kid who insists she or he is ready to get back in the game or to heed the call of family or friends urging a young athlete to “shake it off” and rejoin the team. That can lead to big trouble.

This week the Times Union newspaper in Albany reported on a bill proposed by a Bronx assemblyman to ban tackle football team players under the age of 14. That bill is a non-starter at the moment for lack of support. But a few high profile cases of serious injury will give it more traction. And that’s too bad. We don’t need more laws.

Parents have a responsibility to inform themselves and their kids about the risks and to determine what chances they want their children to take. In this litigious age, school districts also have to proceed very carefully to avoid putting districts in grave financial risks from legal liability for sports more dangerous long-term than previously known. It will cost a lot, but there’s no hiding from the science.

School boards must take special care that all the people responsible for student athletes engaged in contact sports know the latest guidelines for assessing concussion and brain injury and that those guidelines are rigorously enforced. The same standards should apply to any independent groups using school fields or other public facilities.

Let’s hope no one ever finds a substitute more fun for kids than running and jumping, even when sometimes what’s most fun is running and jumping into each other. That would be a dreadfully boring and joyless world. Let’s keep in mind too how dreadful a world it would be if we don’t do all we can now to keep our youngest athletes as safe as humanly possible.

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