Tuesday, December 10, 2013

And Now, The Concussion Issue

Sportswriter Frank DeFord has predicted that interest in football will eventually degenerate to a status similar to boxing, or “reach a point like smoking where it no longer can be justified.”

The reason is concussions. Youth participation in football, according to a National Sporting Goods Association study, has declined thirteen percent in the last two years. Even professional athletes today don’t want their kids to play football.

But football is not the only sport that puts our kids at risk; ice hockey, with its body and head checking, is right up there. Non-collision sports also produce concussions. Wrestling (from slams to the mat), soccer (from heading) and volleyball (from being on the receiving end of a spike) cause their share of trauma. Any collision—with another player or with the ground or floor—can cause concussion. Thus, basketball, baseball, and softball are not exempt from the matter.

Concussions and Our Kids by neurosurgeon Robert Cantu and sports journalist Mark Hyman provides everything one needs to know about concussions. A knock to the head, for instance, is not required to suffer one. The rotational forces of whiplash effect that result from hard hits to the shoulders or neck can sometimes bring about even more severe concussions.

How so? The brain floats in cerebrospinal fluid and the skull is not smooth. A concussion occurs when the brain crashes into the skull, often resulting in tears to brain tissue. Resulting symptoms are headache, nausea, dizziness, depression, sleep disturbance, and cognitive impairment (such as difficulty concentrating). Treatment is physical and cognitive rest. The latter can mean no reading, electronics, TV, or even school. Missing school, in some cases, has lasted as long a year.

Repeated concussions put athletes at serious risk. Second impact syndrome—caused by a second blow, or more—can result in death.

Concussions are deadly.

If the athlete survives his or her playing years, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) may greet the player in older age. Originally called dementia pugilistica to describe the brutalizing effects of boxing, CTE is a degenerative condition that mimics the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and other diseases.

Indeed, it has been suggested that Lou Gehrig, beaned many times by baseball pitchers but also known as an active brawler when the dugouts cleared, may not have died of the disease that carries his name. CTE can also mimic the symptoms of ALS.

Recommendations? Cantu says tackling should not be allowed in football until age fourteen, when bodies and minds of children have at least matured to a point where the kids can begin to protect themselves from violent hits. Checking in hockey should be banned (and, of course, so should fighting, which goes without saying). Cantu even recommends that “hit counts” be used in football and hockey in the same way and for the same reasons that pitch counts are now used in baseball.

This means that drill-sergeant mentalities who call themselves coaches of youth and who tell youngsters to “play through the pain” and not complain lest they be ridiculed as weaklings or sissies—these mentalities need to be removed from sports.

It means that hockey coaches who ignore medical advice and send kids with well-defined symptoms of head trauma back on the ice . . . well, let’s just say that sports psychologist Alan Goldberg would call that coaching abuse, which is another name for the criminal behavior known as child abuse.

It is impossible today for anyone, coach or parent, not to know about the concussion issue. Abundant information is available on the Internet and anyone who has a pocket computer (that is, a smartphone), can readily access it.

If we care about the health of our kids, we must park the ego that wants to win at all costs and put fun back into youth sports as the primary goal.

The need to win that causes or allows harm to our children must go.

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