The Scourge of High School Concussions

While we’re on the topic of football, some news from the darker side of the sport. A brand new survey out of Massachusetts, prompted by a 2010 state law, found that 3,000 youth athletes from 164 schools suffered concussions last year. (A revelation that comes on the heels of a five-concussion peewee football game in central Mass.) Over 500 schools didn’t respond to the survey. Scaled-up, this study implies 600,000 youth concussions occur yearly in the US, about double the 300,000 commonly estimated.

Certain schools have tried to ramp up protections against concussions by employing more personal trainers and cutting back on practice time. 39 states have passed laws protecting kids from concussion, most of them with three stipulations: parents must sign a concussion-information form before their kids play sports, students must be removed from play if it seems they have a concussion, and those who do sustain concussions must get medical clearance before they can return to the playing field.

But at least in football, none of that will matter much. As Jonah Lehrer rightly noted in (what appears to be a well-sourced and plagiarism-free) article on high school concussions, there’s almost nothing we can do to prevent brain injury in football, short of say, eliminating tackling. The only shield we have against concussions, the helmet, doesn’t actually protect the brain.

If the head isn’t shielded from the strongest physical impacts — and this is best done with soft, pliable materials — then it can break and bleed. But the very act of protecting players from those severe collisions means that the head will bounce around the cushioned helmet, thus allowing the brain to move within its bony cage.

This is, of course, a problem in the professional ranks as well, but it’s worse for high school kids. Not only are their brain cells still developing, but 99 percent of them don’t have a professional future in the sport, making their efforts especially worthless. Recently, as Lehrer noted, a BU neuropathologist found the earliest-ever recorded evidence of irreversible CTE–a brain disease similar to Alzheimer’s–in the brain of a deceased 18 year-old who suffered multiple concussions playing high-school football.

We’d like to think that improved regulation or technological breakthroughs (Ridell makes an ‘anti-concussion’ helmet said to reduce concussion incidence by 2.6%) can help us muddle through. But the common laws governing youth head trauma only really kick in after the first concussion occurs, and besides, they leave too much discretion to coaches and kids, meaning injuries will inevitably be ignored and underreported. It sounds drastic, but either youth football has to disband voluntarily, or “the lawyers will do it” for them, as one New Hampshire doctor recently put it. If that signals an eventual end to professional football, so be it.

Update: Reader Russell Sadler points me to this eloquent George Will column that draws the same conclusion as mine, though with a focus on the professional game, and its toll.

Simon van Zuylen-Wood

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a writer for Philadelphia Magazine.