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Concussions: More of a silent killer than we knew

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As a youth sports coach, I’m taught to look for concussion symptoms to help a player avoid further damage. However, new research is showing that the damage could already be happening even if a player is showing no outward signs of injury. From the Chicago Tribune:

…[A] new study of an Indiana high school football team hints that some athletes are suffering brain injuries that go undiagnosed, allowing the players to continue getting battered, unaware of the possible cognitive damage that has been done.

Of 21 high school players monitored for a full season by a team of researchers from Purdue University, four players who were never diagnosed with concussions were found to have suffered brain impairment that was at least as bad as that of other players who had been deemed concussed and removed from play.

“They’re not exhibiting any outward sign and they’re continuing to play,” said Thomas Talavage, an associate professor at the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering at Purdue and the lead researcher on the study. “The cognitive impairment that we observed with them is actually worse than the one observed with the concussed players.”

The report, published in the latest edition of the Journal of Neurotrauma, found that some players received more than 1,800 hits to the head during practices and games, some with a force 20 times greater than what a person would feel while riding a roller coaster.

The research is coming out as the debate rages over what is more damaging: one hard, individual hit, or the cumulative effects of multiple collisions. The science is rapidly pointing to the latter. It helps explain why the brain of the late Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry showed concussion damage, even though he was never diagnosed with such a condition, and why the brain of Penn player Owen Thomas, who committed suicide in August, showed trauma, even though he had never been diagnosed with a concussion.

In the Chicago Tribune article, players and coaches aren’t dismissive of the study’s results. Their worry is more about whether their players and teammates will play hard if they’re worried about head injuries.

“It’s a tough slope because you could end up scaring kids away from even playing football, and you see that a lot,” said Michael Holmes, the football coach at Leo High School in Chicago. “We make our kids conscious of it, but we don’t try to scare them.”

Reilly O’Toole, quarterback at Wheaton [Ill.] Warrenville South High School, said he doesn’t think at all about head injuries.

“If you think about injuries or concussions, that’s when they happen,” he said. “Once you start playing not to get hurt, that’s when you get hurt. It’s a contact sport. If you don’t like contact, you shouldn’t be playing.”

The Purdue researchers aren’t (yet) calling for the end of tackle football, but they are recommend scaling back full-contact practices so kids don’t have to take so many hits.

By the way, the Purdue researchers, citing their continuing study, are not telling the Lafayette Jefferson High players which of the four have signs of, not to put too fine a point on it, brain damage. If it were my kid, I would be demanding to know if mine was one of the four.

What keeps kids from signing up for baseball? Hint: not video games

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The article I’m going to react to has been out for more than week, but I needed time for my slow burn to transition to full-blown foaming at the mouth.

The article is about a perceived decline in the number of children in stick-and-ball sports, and it comes from the Daily Herald, the official chronicler of Chicago’s north and northwest suburbs. I found it thanks to True/Slant’s resident Suburbanista, Hilary Shenfeld. Something stuck in my craw, which I think is near my cockles, right from the start:

Suburban youth baseball and softball coaches can expect to find fewer players on the ball fields this summer, according to many league directors.

And while the finger can be pointed at everything from the recession to competition from other sports, experts increasingly are blaming children’s habitual video game playing as a key reason why droves are ignoring America’s No. 1 pastime.

And the better children get at video games and more used to the fast-paced action they get, the less likely they’ll give them up to play the real game, experts say.

“Instead of going out to play sandlot baseball, kids today are content to sit in front of a computer to play a video game,” said Rich Honack, a professor at Kellogg School of Management.

Studying generations, he says his data shows the computer is the reason for the decrease in kids playing competitive sports.

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So this is how we’re going to do it — again. It’s video games’ fault. It’s always video games’ fault. Video games sexualize children, make them fat, and make them drive too fast. Video games are sure to be blamed for bank bailouts, the Toyota recall and CPAC.

But that’s a facile, knee-jerk argument. I emailed Honack (technically, a senior lecturer, not a professor — an actual professor would be quick to point that out) to ask where the research is proving his point, but I never heard back. I certainly couldn’t find it.

Some northwest Chicago suburban recreational leagues are reporting 20-plus percent drops over the last five years, accelerating during the last two, and particularly acute in the 10-to-14-year-old age group. But video games weren’t just invented five years ago. A lot of factors are contributing to the decline of baseball in that area and others, such as:

— Increased specialization in a single sport.

— The increase in travel and elite leagues. Note that recreational leagues are noticing a drop. It’s possible (not down 20 percent possible) that at least a little bit of the drop comes from parents signing up their kids for travel leagues instead of recreational-level ball.

— The large number of kids who drop out of organized sports by the dawn of teenager-hood. It’s practically an article of faith in youth sports that there is a huge dropoff in participation by age 13, as kids who aren’t interested or aren’t pursuing a scholarship or pro career drop out in favor of other activities. I would not be surprised if a lot of that dropoff comes as early as age 10. I know in my area, the line of demarcation between when baseball and softball are fun, and when it’s time to get serious, comes at age 9.

— And, of course, money. One league in the Daily Herald’s area is reported to charge a $325 entry fee. I hope everyone gets their own steroids for that. Even if the fees aren’t much, the economy is dictating choices. Kids, you can’t do everything anymore. It’s like how I told my oldest son, who had an interest in hockey and loved to skate, whether he kinda liked the sport or whether he LOOOOVVVVVED it. “I kinda like it,” he said. So I didn’t sign him up. I wasn’t going to spend $1,200 in league fees for something he kinda liked. I imagine even in some of the posher suburbs of northwest Chicago, parents are making similar decisions. (Two years ago, the Chicago Tribune wrote a story about the same area saying just that.) After all, why waste time and money signing your kid up for something he or she doesn’t want to do? Plus, the foreclosure crisis isn’t leaving your tonier suburbs unscathed. The money just isn’t there for everything.

If video games play any role, it’s only as a time-killer for kids who decide (or have it decided for them) not to play baseball or softball. I’ve never known a kid to quit to play video games, although I do remember my oldest son getting pissed, at age 7, when his third baseman wasn’t paying attention when he tried to get him the ball on a force play. “He was probably thinking about video games,” my son said.

If kids aren’t interested in sports, they’ll fill it with whatever they’re interested in — theater, music, jerking off or, yes, video games. If kids explicitly choose video games over sports — and parents allow them to do so — I would bet that also has something to do with not wanting to spend hours upon hours in stupid practices getting yelled at by the knuckle-dragging coach for the right to ride the bench all game. Hey, if you’re going to sit, why not in the comfort of your home, with no one barking at you?

Written by rkcookjr

February 24, 2010 at 1:04 am

2016 Olympics in Chicago: Make me an offer, international community

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As I write this, we are only two hours away from finding out whether my city, Chicago, will be awarded the 2016 Olympics. However, I want to get the jump on other locals by taking your outrageous offer to use what I have to make your experience in Chicago — assuming of course, we get the games, more pleasant and profitable (for me).

First, my house. Please rent it! I have a 3-bedroom, 2-bath house located near Midway Airport, two suburban commuter lines and a bus line that will get you to Midway and the El located therein. Also, being on the south end of the city (four blocks outside the city limits, to be exact), I’m convenient to proposed Olympic stadium, which will be located on the south side. For those of you from Ireland, I’m in the center of a lot of ethnic Irish, judging by all the laborers’ business cards I get with a shamrock on them. For those of you from Muslim countries, my location also is in an Arabic enclave close to mosques, restaurants and the Muslim bakery that makes what is known as South Side bread.

Starting bid: $750 per day.

Next, my van. Two vans to be exact. My wife and I (and my two children who will be 19 and 17 in 2016) can drive you anywhere you need to go. We know all the shortcuts, although in some of them I would recommend locking your doors. The vans can fit five adults comfortably, and at least 10 uncomfortably.

Starting bid: $150 per day on retainer, $10 per mile.

Next, my children. My oldest son, who will be 19, is an aspiring photographer, and travels everywhere by Rollerblade. My oldest daughter, who will be 17, loves animals and can pet-sit if needed. I also will have a son who will be 13 and a daughter who will be 11 and can handle multiple tasks. If your country has no child labor laws, then neither do we!

Starting bid: $100 per child, per hour.

Contact me today, before the rush!

Written by rkcookjr

October 2, 2009 at 10:36 am

Ozzie Guillen yells because your kids are pussies

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185475807_7a82423f1fEx-Chicago White Sox pitcher/rock god Jack McDowell knows why his ex-teammate, current Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, is seething with frustration at players who don’t seem to care too much about losing. One part of Guillen’s trouble with getting players to give a shit is a lack of clubhouse bonding because that goddamn media would blow everything said and done out of proportion.

Speaking of someone in the media blowing things out of proportion, another problem McDowell, a Tribune Co. blogger, finds with  major-leaguers these days is that they aren’t competitive enough. You know why? Fuckin’ everybody-gets-a-trophy leagues!

It is politically incorrect to actually WANT to win growing up and playing youth sports.  If a kid cries after a loss he is seen as a “bad sport” or overcompetitive.  He’ll need some sort of medication to fix that, no doubt.

Oh yeah, and everybody gets a trophy, not just the winners.  Let’s celebrate mediocrity instead of success and excellence because we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.  Hell my kids didn’t even receive grades until the 7th grade!  What the hell does “meets expectations” mean anyway?  Who’s expectations, the system or mine?  But again, we don’t want to start listing the kids in order of their achievement levels.  That will surely scar them for life.

Look at the pain in those children’s faces. Will they ever recover?

Scar them for life? Well, at least, unlike Athens State (Ala.) University psychology professor Mark Durm, McDowall didn’t posit that everybody-gets-a-trophy-leagues are the cause of school killing sprees.

Forget for a moment that going off on this George Carlin-style tangent on the pussification of youth sports is a bit odd, considering many of the Chicago White Sox regulars are well into their 30s, not that much younger than the 43-year-old McDowell.

The mistaken assumption McDowell makes — and he’s hardly alone in this — is that the reason for no-score, everybody-gets-a-trophy leagues is to protect the tender children. The actual reason for no-score, everybody-gets-a-trophy leagues is to protect the tender adults.

The kids don’t need to be taught how to compete — ever tried to take a toy away from a 2-year-old? Even if the kids I have coached weren’t the type to cry if the game is lost, they always knew the score, even if the score wasn’t kept. When I coached my oldest son in second-grade, no-score basketball, the kids were the ones filling me in on who was winning, and by how much. All I know is, the parents and others in the crowd were at their quietest when the score was not being kept. They didn’t complain about playing time, or their kids’ pro career. They focused, and I could focus, on player development.

That brings me to other tender adults protected by everybody-gets-a-trophy. That would be the people running the leagues.

If you tell a 6-year-old he sucks and he’s hopeless, more than likely he’ll quit the sport. Perhaps that allows the child to find a more appropriate pursuit. But what it does for leagues is suck away years of entry and fundraising fees. It’s the economic interest of leagues to find as many spots for players as they can, and make sure there’s some carrot to keep kids coming back. Does a trophy do it? Probably not all by itself. However, it is a physical reminder to the children — and more importantly, to whomever is writing the check — that there is a reward for getting yelled at by some guy in a mustache and mesh cap all spring.

In seven years of youth sports parenting and coaching, I have never found that kids who were innately competitive found their personalities blunted by whether score was kept or hardware was handed out. I also have never found kids who were not innately competitive, at least in the sport in question, had their personalities changed by whether score was kept or hardware was handed out.

I don’t believe you can teach competitiveness. You can teach players to try their best for their own selfish purposes, or for the good of the team. You can show them that if they do certain things, they are more likely to win than if they don’t. (If I don’t spend a season, in any sports, telling kids to bend their knees, it will be the first.) I can appeal to their pride. What I cannot do is take a laid-back kid and turn him into the competitive nutcase that was Jack McDowell.

Anyway, I also find “competitiveness” to be overrated. People love players who are rah-rah, who slam things, who flip the finger to the Yankee Stadium crowd when the home fans are booing him. But I’ve had players who gnash their teeth and rend their garments, and often these players are difficult to deal with. They let anything that goes wrong drive them to distraction. (By the way, the uncompetitive White Sox are being dragged down in part because power hitter Carlos Quentin broke his hand slamming his bat after a strikeout last year, and then came back this year hitting horribly as he drove himself crazy trying to regain his form.)

I can take a player like that and try to teach him or her how to redirect competitiveness in a productive direction. Without medication. But if dad is riding the kid’s ass all the home about this or that, then my job is a lot harder.

Here is one statement McDowell made that I can agree with wholeheartedly.

So Ozzie Guillen is caught between that rock and that hard place.  If he has to TEACH the kids coming in how to play with true heart and competitiveness, he’ll soon realize that is impossible.  If that fire is not there, it never will be.

That can be the greatest frustration to a coach or manager, at any level, who is a fiery, competitive kind of guy. For that matter, it’s the frustration of anyone who manages people anywhere. If someone flat-out doesn’t care, you can’t make that person care.

By the way, McDowell started his piece saying that every “player from an era gone by fears becoming the ‘remember when’ guy. Black Jack, I think your fears have been realized.

I just hope that people have figured out that political correctness, celebrating mediocrity, and the whole movement of pshychology [sic] has virtually devastated an entire generation.  Sure, some gamers snuck through the cracks and some parents taught these unacceptable values along the way.  It’s in my hands now, along with others in my same boat.  Teach your kids old school values.  Hard work=excellence=prize.  Then Ozzie won’t have to worry if he’s still managing in another 15 years.

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McDowell, stretching his musical chops by starring as Harry McAfee in “Bye Bye Birdie.”

Written by rkcookjr

September 30, 2009 at 11:45 pm

How one urban youth baseball league succeeds

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On the morning of the day he leaves to watch his son’s all-star team play in a Little League tournament game, Bill Haley is doing two things at the Jackie Robinson West field on the south side of Chicago. One is keeping watch while a crew films a commercial for Harris Bank. “You’d think they were making Star Wars,” Haley says. The other is talking to me on the phone about how a normal thing for him and his league — African-American kids playing baseball — seems so unusual to most everyone else.

“I can understand why it’s news, but I don’t think it’s news,” Haley said.

In this previous piece on Jackie Robinson West, I talked about the long-term decline in the percentage of African-Americans in Major League Baseball, from about 30 percent in the late 1970s to around 10 percent now. I talked about how that has become a symbol of many blacks’ overall disengagement from the game, compared with earlier generations. And how an all-black team making the Little League World Series in 1983, as Jackie Robinson West did, is not big news, but that team making the LLWS this year could be a very big deal, given Major League Baseball’s greater sensitivity and awareness to its dwindling African-American base.

object022Jackie Robinson West’s second straight appearance in the Great Lakes Region final in Indianapolis, the last stop before South Williamsport, Pa., is a very big deal to Haley, but not for the reasons listed above. It’s a big deal because it’s his league — and his 12-year-old son, Adam — playing a big series. Black has nothing to do with it. For that matter, Jackie Robinson West’s playoff road is gravy to the real goal of the league, the stated goal of most local leagues — “give kids something to do, and provide an outlet for the adults.”

What makes Jackie Robinson West succeed as a league is the same as what makes any league succeed, no matter the players’ race, ethnicity or income status.

“It’s a combination of factors,” said Haley, a dispatcher for the Chicago Transit Authority. “Our league has a strong tradition. The coaches were once players. It’s taken hold in the community. You pull kids from a limited area, so there’s a sense of community to start out with. Being state champions (the league has won two Illinois championships in a row) is incidental to what we’re trying to do.”

The key, Haley said, is not the children. “It’s the adults. Baseball is a family game. It starts with just a dad playing catch with his kids. You’ve got a dad who hits pop flies on a Sunday. That’s where the connection comes in.

“That’s how it started for me.”

No surprise, because Haley’s father, Joseph, founded the Jackie Robinson West league in 1971. There was some sociological significance to that as well. In 1960, the Washington Heights neighborhood on Chicago’s south side was 88 percent white. Thanks to a decade of blockbusting, white flight and black emigration from other parts of the city and the South (Joseph Haley was from Louisiana), by 1970 the neighborhood was 75 percent black. (My suburb, Oak Lawn, had its big population boom in the 1960s thanks to white people fleeing Washington Heights and other south side areas that, as Chicago residents still diplomatically put it, were “changing.”) By putting the league together, Joseph Haley, who died four years ago, created a center for the mass of new arrivals in Washington Heights, not only a place to play baseball, but also a place for adults to meet and greet.

Like many neighborhoods and suburbs on Chicago’s south side, a lot of the people who now live in Washington Heights are people who grew up in Washington Heights. (My Oak Lawn is that way — my wife and I moved all over the country and ended up a mile from her childhood home. Like south siders say, they always come back.) Washington Heights is nearly 100 percent black. However, not all urban neighborhoods are created unequal. Washington Heights is a stable, working- to middle-class area where the likes of a Bill Haley are around and available.

It’s not just that there are fathers around. It’s that whole families and neighbors are invested in the league and its success. Washington Heights is not unique in Chicago — there are baseball leagues in neighborhoods on all sides of the area served by Jackie Robinson West. For any youth league of any kind in any area to survive and thrive, you need adults who are invested (hopefully in a productive way) in their children’s lives. You also need people who respect the league and its traditions. That’s easier to do when you have people like Haley, who played, and then coached (so does his brother). Haley’s 16-year-old daughter, once a Jackie Robinson West cheerleader, helps to coach the newest generation. The league has annual reunions of past players.

That’s not to say Washington Heights and all the kids at Jackie Robinson West are all about baseball. “What people don’t realize is the tremendous amount of energy and time that goes into basketball,” Haley said. “I can’t tell you how many kids we lose to basketball.” That’s become particularly acute since a few years back, thanks to the success of a recent graduate of the nearby high school, Simeon — the Chicago Bulls’ Derrick Rose.

However, “we’re not in competition with basketball,” Haley said. The success of the older kids does help generate excitement in baseball, to be sure. “We’ve got a whole park of 7- to 10-year-olds watching these guys like they’re Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee and Milton Bradley.”

Some might read Haley’s naming of those three players as a way of holding up black role models in baseball (with Lee and Bradley among the relatively rare African-Americans in the majors). I tend to think of it as Haley not being a true south sider by rooting for the stinkin’ Cubs. Hey, if we want to talk African-American baseball role models, how about 2005 World Series MVP Jermaine Dye, or DeWayne Wise, who made the greatest catch ever to save a perfect game? Oh, did I mention I’m a White Sox fan by marriage?

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But I digress.

Speaking of major leaguers, Haley isn’t sure about the various MLB initiatives to goose African-American participation and big-league representation.

The success of “our league is simple. The commitment of the adults in the community. They believe this is important for the kids to have. Without that, if it’s not organically grown, [a league or initiative] is just a good idea. Time well tell whether they have any success. Though I’m always concerned when the forces behind something like this is not at the ground level.”

In its first game in Indianapolis Thursday night, Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West beat Columbus, Ind.’s Bartholomew County 4-2 in the Architecture Bowl. It has round-robin play this week before the championship round. If Jackie Robinson West keeps winning, you’re likely to hear more about how something so ordinary to Haley seems so extraordinary to others. The goal is no more high-minded than having a good baseball league that kids enjoy and parents support.

By the way, Harris Bank wasn’t filming a commercial at Jackie Robinson West as some sort of statement. It just liked the field.

Written by rkcookjr

August 7, 2009 at 6:23 pm

You always remember your first…

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…sports injury. Below is my 11-year-old son, pictured (thanks to my cruddy cellphone camera) at the Palos Immediate Care in Palos Heights, Ill., about 90 minutes after he rolled his foot off another player’s foot in the third quarter of the consolation game of the Alsip Park District 7th-8th grade coed league playoffs. (My son got in on a special 6th-graders-allowed exemption.) He made sure to tell everyone here that he misdirected the shot he defended as he got hurt, and that his team won. (And he even wondered about getting back in the game. Given we had no trainer with a cortisone needle, no.) Diagnosis: sprained right foot.