• Taking hits
    April 18,2013

    A bill making its way through the House ought to help save high school athletes from long-lasting injury and save the sport of football from self-destruction.

    The bill lays out procedures and standards for the treatment of concussions suffered by athletes in what are called collision sports — football, boys’ and girls’ lacrosse, boys’ and girls’ hockey and wrestling. The bill makes explicit the need for attention by a health care provider who has received recent training in the diagnosis and treatment of concussions and requires that a qualified provider must be present at sporting events.

    Football has received the most attention because of the high-profile cases of former NFL players who have suffered serious physical deterioration because of brain injury, sometimes leading to suicide. Also, football is a game that celebrates violence and encourages aggressive, hard-hitting, potentially dangerous contact.

    The damage done by concussions has persuaded some people that the days are numbered for football altogether, despite the preeminent place in our culture that the sport occupies. The Super Bowl, after all, is one of the most watched TV events in the world. Concussions or not, football is woven into the fabric of American life — from the Friday night lights of Texas to ice-bound Lambeau Field in Green Bay.

    To point out the danger inherent in football is to point out the obvious. In the first part of the 20th century boys died by the dozens, raising concerns nationally. But the danger has always been part of the appeal. Millions of boys over the years have seen football as a rite of passage. They learn lessons about pain, effort, strength, courage, stamina and teamwork. A good football coach, in the corniest sense, helps usher boys to manhood.

    Other sports teach similar lessons, but the military precision and discipline of football, its grace and its brutality, make it unique. Challenging the physicality of football is to go to its essence.

    Yet it is impossible to look away from the fact of concussions and the serious, long-lasting damage they can cause. Concussions are especially insidious because their effects are usually hidden and are easy to laugh off. How many players have had their “bell rung”? More than a few.

    Establishing procedures that bring to bear the knowledge and experience of trainers, nurses or doctors who know about concussions and requiring coaches and players to heed their words — these are major steps forward. Coaches are not always in a position to give a player the attention needed to ascertain symptoms. Players are usually loathe to take themselves off the field, even if their bell has been rung.

    Football skeptics will say that if such close medical scrutiny is required to protect players, then maybe they should be playing other sports. But there is no way football is not going be part of American life for the foreseeable future, and so it’s best to take responsible steps to limit injuries. After coaches and players become accustomed to taking concussions seriously, then the style of play may evolve so that players tackle and block in ways that avoid head injuries. Already players are learning not to lead with their heads or to use their heads as weapons.

    Paradoxically, helmets protect players’ heads to a degree that they are persuaded they can use their heads in ways heads are not made for. Rugby players don’t wear helmets, and they manage to tackle effectively while protecting their heads.

    By taking concussions into account, the schools of Vermont can continue to field football teams, letting their boys bash each other without doing lasting harm. Hockey, lacrosse and wrestling would also benefit. The point is not to take the fun out of these sports.

    The point is to keep the fun in while keeping players’ bodies sound enough so they can keep on playing.

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