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Will young athletes’ concussions eventually kill football?

Every parent who has a kid playing football needs to read Jonah Lehrer’s article on “The Fragile Teenage Brain,” which appears on the sports-and-pop-culture website Grantland.

No young football player is safe from concussions.
REUTERS/Joshua Lott
No young football player is safe from concussions.

Every parent who has a kid playing football needs to read Jonah Lehrer‘s article on “The Fragile Teenage Brain,” which appears on the sports-and-pop-culture website Grantland. He explains in clear and painful language why no young football player — no matter how diligent his coach nor how expensive his equipment — is safe from concussions and their potentionally devastating long-term consequence: permanent brain damage.

Take helmets, for example. Many parents believe that by buying their young linebacker or quarterback a very expensive, “state-of-the-art” helmet, they’re protecting their son (and it’s almost always sons) from a concussion — or, at least, minimizing the effects of a concussion-producing tackle on the field.

Not so. In fact, such helmets may raise the risk of a serious concussion, as Lehrer explains:

While a hard plastic helmet lined with cushioning can protect the skull from fracturing, a concussion occurs on the inside of the head, when the brain quickly decelerates and impacts bone. This means that helmet designers face an inevitable tradeoff: If the head isn’t shielded from the strongest physical impacts — and this is best done with soft, pliable materials — then it can break and bleed. But the very act of protecting players from those severe collisions means that the head will bounce around the cushioned helmet, thus allowing the brain to move within its bony cage. The worst impact will be internal.

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Nor, adds Leher, should parents be comforted by the fact that their child hasn’t been involved in many severe impacts:

It’s become clear that the severity of a concussion is only indirectly related to the physical force of the impact. Sometimes, players walk away from savage hits. And sometimes they are felled by incidental contact. While data compiled from the Head Impact Telemetry System, or HITS, captures the extreme physical forces at work during a football game — it’s not uncommon for a player to sustain hits equivalent to the impact of a 25 mph car crash — there is no clear threshold for injury. The mind remains a black box; nobody really understands why it breaks.

And what about parents who justify permitting their child to play football because “all sports are dangerous.” Well, that’s certainly true. In fact, as Lehrer points out, the second most dangerous sport in terms of concussions in the U.S. is a rather surprising one: girls’ soccer.

But the concussion rate among teenage football players, he quickly adds, is three times higher than among girl soccer players.

Not enough
Lehrer spends some time in his article describing the laudatory concussion prevention and treatment efforts of one of California’s football powerhouses, Mater Dei High School.

“The coaches are vigilant; the equipment is top of the line; the latest medical recommendations are exactingly followed,” he writes. And yet… 

[E]ven when a football program does everything right, it’s still not clear if it’s enough. This uncertainty haunts the Mater Dei coaching staff, who struggle on a daily basis to effectively manage the risk of concussions among their players. The new research on concussions has allowed them to prevent many of the worst injuries, but it has also made them increasingly aware of the ubiquity of injury. They know better than anyone that if an elite program like Mater Dei can’t solve the problem of head trauma, it seems unlikely the problem can be solved. The sport may simply be too dangerous for teenagers.

A tragic flaw?
Lehrer believes concussions are football’s “tragic flaw” — one that may eventually kill the game: 

If the sport of football ever dies, it will die from the outside in. It won’t be undone by a labor lockout or a broken business model — football owners know how to make money. Instead, the death will start with those furthest from the paychecks, the unpaid high school athletes playing on Friday nights. It will begin with nervous parents reading about brain trauma, with doctors warning about the physics of soft tissue smashing into hard bone, with coaches forced to bench stars for an entire season because of a single concussion. The stadiums will still be full on Sunday, the professionals will still play, the profits will continue. But the sport will be sick.

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“The only question now,” he adds, “is whether the death has begun.”