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Concussions: Why you question letting your kids play football

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My second-grade son has a friend over today who came over after he played a youth league football game. Given all the attention lately about concussions, I felt like I should give him a baseline test before he and my son played in the back yard.

If you watched the NFL the first few weeks in its new, we-care-about-concussions mode, you got a sense of how football at all levels is changing in a hurry now that we know concussions aren’t just dings that make you punch-drunkenly shake the cobwebs.

Two incidents, to me, stand out. One is Stewart Bradley of the Philadelphia Eagles in week one, going back onto the field — stunningly — not long after being unable to walk following a hit. The incident had the NFL reviewing how that happened, though as of this writing the Eagles have not been cited by the league for violating its policies regarding concussion testing and treatment.

Bradley, unable to walk.

The Bradley situation was pretty shocking, and I think it explains a lot about the second concussion-related incident I noticed. During week two’s Chicago Bears-Dallas Cowboys game, Fox’s cameras caught Dallas tight end Jason Witten vociferously arguing with a member of the team’s medical staff, which was refusing to clear him to play after Witten suffered a concussion in the fourth quarter. Actually, the staff couldn’t have cleared him to play if it wanted to — once a concussion is diagnosed, a player is not supposed to come back in the game. And, believe me, after all the flak the NFL and the Eagles took over Bradley, no one is going to let anyone with a concussion back into a game.

As Witten was arguing, Chicago Bears radio announcer Tom Thayer, an offensive lineman on Chicago’s 1985 Super Bowl champs, responded, and I’m paraphrasing, that if players are going to be held out because they get dinged, you’re going to have to get used to players missing a lot of time. Thayer said this with a mix of ruefulness — god knows how many concussions Thayer probably played with in his day — and a sense that maybe, grudgingly, it is about time things changed — god knows how many concussions Thayer probably played with in his day.

As of this writing, I’m enjoying my hometown Indianapolis Colts’ crushing of the New York Giants, but I have to say that Thayer is right — if I may read into his comments — that how we view the game of football is changing, in a hurry. Certainly, many studies have pointed out the concussion risk in numerous youth sports, including my beloved basketball.

But football by design is a collision sport, and many fans of the game are openly wondering why anyone would play it, or let their kids play it, sort of like the way people changed their minds about letting their kids box. (My 13-year-old has suddenly developed an interest in wanting to box. We’ll have to chat about that one.)

The post-concussive horror stories are growing more familiar, with the number of ex-pros who turned out to have brains scrambled like eggs after their years of football. But then you hear about Chris Henry, who turned out to have concussion-related brain damage as an active player. Then you hear about the suicide of Penn player Owen Thomas, who despite never having been diagnosed with a concussion may have had a level of impact-related brain damage enough to cause him to kill himself. Then you hear about a sixth-grade football player in Wisconsin who died of concussion-related injuries.

And then you hear about some youth coaches and parents, who presumably should know better or care more about their kids than the game, pressuring to get their addled children back in games, such as this story told by a physician in the Pittsburgh area to the local Post-Gazette:

Dr. Young cannot forget this episode last fall in his league’s championship game for the youngest local level. Adults with the opposing team asked him to approve their star tailback, whom he said blacked out and fell in the huddle before he threw up. Unconsciousness and nausea are prime indicators for a concussion.

“They wanted me to clear him at halftime,” said Dr. Young, still incredulous almost a year later. “Ultimately, the boy sat out the second half. It was a championship game, an important game in their 6- and 7-year-old season. But it was 6 and 7 year olds.”

I’m glad that my children have no interest in playing football, and I’m thankful now that my parents kept my scrawny ass out of the game. (Then again, I played no-pads tackle frequently in my neighborhoods growing up, so I can’t be smug.)

I’m hardly going to stop watching the game, or declare anyone who puts their kids in the game a bad parent. Hopefully, at the least, youth coaches and parents will keep their eyes out for concussion-related symptoms, and get their kids out of the games before any further damage is done. I’d like to think that when my kids’ friends come over, they’re of sound mind.

Laws sought to curb youth sports concussions

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A little slice of health reform that Hines Ward might not back: Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., on Dec. 4 announced he would sponsor legislation that would seek to fight concussions in youth sports. From The Associated Press:

The bill … would establish a grant program to states to come up with ways to prevent, diagnose and treat sports-related concussions in high schools and middle schools. It also calls for the Department of Health and Human Services to develop concussion management guidelines, including standards for athletes to return after concussions.

It’s called the Concussion Treatment and Care Tools Act, or ConTACT Act. The legislation comes as concussions among athletes at all levels has been getting a look in Congress.

Menendez is following the lead of fellow New Jersey Democrat Bill Pascrell Jr., who filed a similar bill March 5, before fighting concussions was cool. Pascrell’s bill hasn’t moved anywhere since it was referred to committee. But it does have 10 Democratic and two Republican co-sponsors, which is practically lovey-dovey bipartisanship in this day and age. And Menendez’s bill comes as there is additional pressure on the NFL over how it handles concussions, state-level legislation about youth sports concussions, and a growing sentiment that leagues at all levels have a history of underestimating long-term and short-term concussion damage.

You might even say that, in the parlance of old concussion language, the sports world has gotten its bell rung.

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A clip from the Sept. 15 episode of HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, which featured a piece on concussions in high school football. Gumbel is talking to the mother and teammates of Ryne Dougherty, who died of a brain hemmorhage after a hit on the field in October 2008. The family is suing  because Ryne had been cleared to play after two previous concussions.

Written by rkcookjr

December 4, 2009 at 6:07 pm

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