Montemayor: For teens on the football field, stakes are higher than we imagined
It is tempting when talking about concussions in sports to speak in terms of the hulking millionaires playing before us in stadiums and on television screens.
We read the studies, we watch the debates. We see the occasional player, dazed, walked off the field on prime time television, later pontificated about the following morning on sports radio.
When it is our child doing the tackling and blocking, how often are we really thinking about what’s happening to their brains?
ESPN’s Grantland.com on Tuesday published an exposé on concussions in high school football, written by Jonah Lehrer, a contributing editor for the science and technology magazine Wired.
Another story about head injuries in football? And in January, no less. Isn’t that a topic reserved for early fall when public radio and Sports Illustrated use the forthcoming football season as a jumping off point.
Then again, when do we ever really stop thinking about football?
Lehrer’s piece, “The Fragile Teenage Brain,” is a must read because it adds to an already substantial narrative the idea that not only are our young athletes more susceptible to head injuries in their sports, but that the effects of repeated concussions are that much more devastating.
The odds that a student athlete will sustain a concussion on the football field are substantially higher than that of their well-publicized idols. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said that nearly 2 million such injuries are suffered by high school players each year.
And it’s not only the frequency with which concussions occur among youths that is highest, but their effects carry more devastating and lasting results.
Lehrer cites a figure by the journal Neurosurgery that high school players with two or more concussions in their career reported mental problems at higher rates. Similarly, a 2002 study found athletes with three or more concussions to be 10 times more likely to exhibit conditions like loss of consciousness and amnesia.
Next comes the punch: Athletes with two or more traumatic brain injuries earned significantly lower grade-point averages.
Detail is also devoted — to the extent that would delight a biology professor — to the science of what happens when a brain reconciles with having thwapped against the hard skull.
One of the immediate benefits of the extra awareness of this issue has been the extra attention given to the recovery period. Brain cells must regain their strength and equilibrium, which we now know is at least 10 days for adults and a few days more for adolescents.
Return to play too soon and receive a second hit to the head? Brain cells on the mend are gone for good.
For as long as humans have observed the adverse affects of smacking skulls on the field of play, the gears of innovation began a permanent rotation.
Aside from adjusting the rules of the game — strict policing of helmet-to-helmet contact and tweaking kickoffs — this has largely meant looking to the helmet for answers.
In a way it’s an attempt to recreate the wheel. Our skulls are the perfect helmets, enclosing and protecting the brain. The introduction of the modern football helmet sought only to afford the skull the same protection it gives the brain. Yet football helmets are meant to prevent skull fractures, not keep the brain from colliding with its container.
And still parents — including a few I spoke with last year for a story about this very issue — shell out big bucks for top flight helmets billed as “anti-concussion” shells.
In Lehrer’s piece, we read that Riddell’s latest anti-concussion helmet only reduced the concussion rate by 2.6 percent.
Last summer, KU Med West played host to a sports injury prevention clinic in Shawnee. The specialist who led the clinic discussed the era of “hyper awareness” in which we now live. Say young athletes stop underreporting head injury symptoms and start removing themselves from the field at a higher rate. Say multiple players remove themselves from a game. Then what? Do you eventually increase roster sizes, thereby putting more inexperienced players on the field and, presumably, at an elevated risk of injury?
Kansas introduced its high school concussion management law last year. The Johnson County Youth Football and Cheerleading Club began offering free computerized baseline tests to better monitor head injuries amongst its young athletes.
I remember a parent I spoke with after KU Med West clinic. Her 13-year-old had already suffered two concussions playing football — one in sixth grade, the other in seventh. She wanted to gather as much information as she could before her 7-year-old, the youngest of three boys, started tackle football. Like the middle child, the 7-year-old wanted to be just like big brother.
Is all of this worth it? There’s been talk of the threat of concussions being an occupational hazard for pro players. But is this game appropriate for youths, the most of which will never see a dime but may pay the ultimate price?
Could we ever bring ourselves to shut off the Friday night lights?