Now it’s your time to speak on the issue of head trauma and football.
In the past week, we at The MMQB have tried to take the head-trauma debate deeper, with 19 stories exploring ideas about a safer game, the realities of playing a violent game, and the complicated issues facing youth and high-school football today.
My takeaways from the series: It surprises me that parents—and we interviewed 23 of them who spoke this way—cede the decision to play or not play high-school football to their sons. That has changed in the time since I was a (quite marginal) high-school athlete in Enfield, Conn. If my father and mother thought the sport I was playing was excessively dangerous, they’d have interceded and recommended and/or demanded I not play. But many of the parents we interviewed in 49 states said it was up to their son where he would play. I understand wanting to empower your children, but I’m not sure empowering 15- and 16-year-olds who make decisions based very often on emotion is a smart call … Also: If I were the NFL, and I read this series, I would think seriously about investing some money in trainers and equipment at some of the hotbed high schools such as those in Kansas that are too small to afford a trainer at every school … And this: I don’t think football will die. I think it needs some care; and it needs to be certain that correct form tackling be taught at the grassroots level across the country, and that there be a uniform way to deal with head-to-head hits and aftermath care of concussions.
Now for some reactions to the writing we did.
From the editor in charge of the series, Matt Gagne
When I sat down to write my final thoughts on concussions, I became engrossed in reading all of the feedback we received. There is nothing I can add in the way of opinion, and it would be disingenuous to try and steer the conversation in a particular direction. Our readers covered the entire spectrum. Some I agree with, others I can see their point, and a few seem to be pretending there isn’t a problem. But it’s all worth reading.
We didn’t set out to do a series attacking football or telling people they shouldn’t play football; the science hasn’t yet evolved to say once you cross a certain threshold of brain trauma you’ve done irreparable harm. At the same time, the known science should have everyone asking, What’s going on exactly? (The PBS documentary League of Denial should be required viewing for NFL fans.)
Playing football or even watching football is very much a personal decision, and, as we saw in our coverage last week, the issue is only getting more complex. Concussions have always been a part of the game, but as our understanding of the injury progresses, so should the conversation about head trauma in football. Of all the stories we ran last week, one line in Jenny Vrentas’s piece about how football might be played in the future resonated the most. “By 2025,” she wrote, “we might see the accepted timeframe to return from a concussion increasing from a seven- to 10-day window to a few weeks, on par with a high ankle sprain.” In that context, how can you not wonder what’s going on exactly?
From the comments sections
From “branlishan:” “There is a non-stop assault on football by SI and its writers. We get it now. Football is dangerous. If football is such a barbaric sport then why do you cover the games and bring attention to the glory of it all? SI should stop with the hypocritical garbage. Either line up behind the ‘ban football’ crowd and stop covering a sport that is so dangerous, or shut up. Because this non-stop assault never ends.’’
From “decredico,” to me: “You sat on this story for years and under reported it and you are part of the package that kept this off the radar for many years. You are a disingenuous hypocrite that should be excoriated and excommunicated and banished to writing for the local garden section of a small town newspaper.’’
From “BillRobinson:” “Incremental change has always been a part of football and any successful enterprise. The changes I’ve seen so far seem reasonable to me and don’t in any way limit my enjoyment of the game. If we can limit the frequency and severity of injuries and maintain the elements of the game we enjoy, why not?’’
From “solidbrass79:” “Football has changed before, it will change again, and if the reason is for player safety, all to the good. Every knucklehead defending ‘football as we know it’ ignores the facts. There once was a flying wedge, but the so-called nanny state—in the form of a Republican President still invoked in convention speeches, Teddy Roosevelt—intervened. Once there were no helmets, then leather helmets, then hard hats with no face guard. The sport survived.”
From “hlmencken56:” “We’re just a country full of cowards now. Everyone is a victim, and nobody should ever get hurt, or the risks always must be lowered.”
From former college and NFL quarterback Danny Kanell, now an ESPN analyst, on the Richard Sherman we-know-and-accept-the-risks-we-take column: “This is the most honest, revealing look at concussions from a current NFL player’s perspective.”
“As a young reporter in high school, one of my teachers who played football through college (Division III) and was only in his early 30s let me do a story on how concussions were already affecting him. The memory loss was already bad enough that he had forgotten to pick his kids up from school several times and told me depressing thoughts came often. It’s important for people to know concussions in football affect not only famous NFL players but every citizen who steps on a field.”
—Ryan, Syracuse University Class of 2016
“I’ve been a high school football ref in central Pennsylvania for 13 years. I’ve been extremely concerned about concussions for about eight or nine years. Some things have changed. Most coaches are much more sensitive to head injuries now, and I think the ‘macho tough guy’ element of this debate is starting to wane. However, there are still a few bad apples making it hard for the rest of the sport. Two weeks ago I watched a visiting-team player go down with an apparent foot injury. He was literally screaming in pain. The home team trainer suspected a broken foot, but the boy’s coach was exhorting him to ‘shake it off, we’ll tape it up, you’re going back in.’ The trainer stood his ground and demanded he be taken for an x-ray. I heard later that the broken foot was confirmed. I sometimes wonder why I’m still a ref. I have discouraged my boys from playing. My hometown high school coach demands year-round participation. I’ve seen so many injuries. They start tackling in pads at age 8 here now. It’s really become too much. On the other hand, I feel that by staying in as an official and doing my part to call the illegal hits and enforce good sportsmanship and fair play, just maybe I’m doing a tiny bit to make the game better.’’
“I have been a fan of you and your MMQB column for seven or eight years now and never miss one. I was really looking forward to your new MMQB page and for the most part I have really enjoyed it. However lately I have not nearly enjoyed MMQB as much. I feel like I have been given a concussion by being beaten over the head with your concussion reports. Please go back to the reporting of fun football. You don’t have to ignore concussions completely, but man I feel like you guys are trying to ruin something that I enjoy so very much. It’s like if every time I eat something bad for me, my wife is standing behind me telling me that it’s going to kill me.”
“As a parent with a 9-year old and 14-year old playing football, and as a coach and huge football fan, I think the real problem here is all the negative publicity that is causing unnecessary concern and alarm. I do believe that efforts must continue to be made through better equipment, medical supervision and education. However the media needs to stop talking about it. Parents should be talking about it, players should be talking about it, coaches should be talking about it, medical professionals need to be talking about it but the media needs to leave it alone!! If that happens, both the safety and future of the game will be protected!’’
—Kris, Abbotsford, British Columbia
“This issue hits very close to home for me. When my son was a sophomore in high school, I was forced to re-examine it and its importance in our lives. Until August 2011, our family’s life revolved around football. Then, in a junior varsity game, it all changed. My son Drew, a linebacker/receiver for Midway High School in Waco, Texas, filled a hole at the goal line. He was hit on the side of the head by the lead fullback. He didn’t lose consciousness, but ran off the field holding his head. After the game the trainer told me he needed to go to the ER to be checked out. Drew’s eyes were dilated and he had no idea where he was, what had happened, or even his own sister’s name. Drew was out 6 weeks with residual symptoms. When he returned to practice for the playoffs, he took another shot and immediately the symptoms returned. He told Drew he may be predisposed to concussions, and it might be over for him. Standing at the elevator in the doctor office, Drew made a ‘grown man’ decision to leave the game he loved with every fiber of his being. We both cried all the way home. He’s never played again and two years later still misses the game terribly. My biggest regret as a Dad is making the game, something that can be taken away in an instant, such a big part of our lives and his identity. Two years later he’s adjusted well, but he will tell you, he still wishes he could play every Friday night. Thank you for taking a deeper look at the issue at every level. Hopefully parents will realize it’s just a game, and not allow it to fill such a large part of their lives like I did.’’
—Mark, Waco, Texas
“Thank you for the article about athletic trainers in Kansas. This is a big issue for the profession.”
—Greg McMillen, athletic trainer, Buffalo Bills. Robert Klemko’s story about a high school in Smith Center, Kans., reported the school shares an athletic trainer with 11 other high schools in Kansas and Nebraska, meaning many high-school games are played without any medical personnel present.
“The telling stats in your survey were that eight of 49 coaches have not modified training techniques and a whopping 34 out of 96 parents are not worried about football’s future health effects on their kids. This is not controversial science anymore and in fact, it probably never should have been considering that you only have to have had your bell rung once to know that it’s not healthy. Those eight coaches who have not modified training techniques seem akin to eight out of 49 nutritionists who wouldn’t advocate removing soda machines from school cafeterias.’’
—Ron, Towson, Md.
“As a high school football coach for the last seventeen years, I have had the recurring three thoughts concerning concussions:
1. If the NFL is so serious about reducing concussions, why is there such a large percentage of players in the NFL that don’t even utilize mouth pieces. They are mandatory from high school down to youth leagues, but then there is no mandatory requirement beginning in college. Why?
2. With all of the testing and studying of helmets, why are so many players (any, really) in the NFL still permitted to wear the Riddell VSR4 model? Even Riddell has cautioned players against wearing the helmet.
3. When is the last time the field changed size or shape? No one would argue that players have continually grown bigger, faster, and stronger. However, the field has stayed the same size. More space would likely lead to at least fewer collisions.’’
“I was once one of the tough guys. Although I didn’t have anything close to a prolific ‘career,’ I’ve played in my fair share of football games, from Pop Warner to D3 college. This was the game that we chose. One of my favorite coaches used to say, ‘In order to play this game—and play it well—you need to have at least a few screws loose.’ I would absolutely agree. But then I recently watched League of Denial and read the MMQB stories on head trauma in the game. I’m terrified for a different reason now. Seeing the stories of what has become of greats like Iron Mike Webster, and the pain of Lisa McHale was eye opening to me. I, myself, have exhibited symptoms that I fear could be CTE-related. It’s a scary prospect, and one that I wish I had both expected and been prepared for earlier.’’
“My name is Shawn Boyle and I’m the president of the Black Hills Youth Football League in Rapid City, S.D. I keep hearing about leagues around the country losing players each season. We see the opposite. Our league began in 2009 with 250 participants. This season, we’re just shy of 1,000 players. We are South Dakota’s fastest growing youth sports program, and I firmly believe it’s because last year, our board voted unanimously to adopt the “Heads Up” program, brought to us by USA Football with help from the NFL. Our transformation began over the summer, when we appointed a newly designated “Player Safety Coach” from each association, packed them all up and made the seven-hour drive to Denver to participate in a weekend of training. We spent hours in groups on the field using pads and dummies, learning to teach our youth the great sport of football. “Great hit” is out. “Great tackle’’ is in. We returned to South Dakota and set up mandatory training classes for our over 200 coaches. I already see results. Last season, we had over 20 diagnosed concussions, (mostly mild as is always the case—we err on the side of caution and safety). As we enter the playoffs for this season, we’ve had fewer than 10. If you attend a game, and if you know what you are looking for, you can see a difference between the play of those young athletes implementing what they have learned through Heads Up coaching and those who haven’t been trained that way. The parents have been 100 percent on board. As their little guys mature and grow, tackling and hitting the proper way is all they’ll know.’’
—A youth league president in South Dakota. USA Football figures show that about 3 million children, ages six through 14, played organized tackle football in 2011, and that number dipped six percent to 2.8 million in 2012.
“I am not a believer in one-liners or pithy statements, but in this case it really is this simple: The [Richard Sherman] column is an elegant illustration of the need to protect some people from themselves.’’
“I love the new MMQB web site. I love the work you folks are putting into it. It’s been a great new resource for us football fans who can’t get enough of our favorite sport. But I have concussion-story fatigue. I understand the concussion issue is a big issue. I understand that it’s big news. I understand you feel compelled to cover it. I understand that this issue will inevitably change the game I love and that someday down the road this sport will not look the same, if it even exists at all. So I understand the desire to cover this news in its nascent state. But I just can’t take any more of the coverage. It’s too depressing.’’