Blog Entry

How do we keep our youth football players safe?

Posted on: February 3, 2012 5:14 pm
Edited on: February 3, 2012 7:00 pm
 
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By Josh Katzowitz

INDIANAPOLIS -- Before he was even finished with his opening statement Friday, Chris Nowinski -- former Harvard football player, former WWE professional wrestler and current advocate for concussion research and prevention -- summed up his entire reason for holding a press conference on recognizing and averting brain injury.

“The question is this,” Nowinski said, “How many times should a 6-year-old be hit in the head for sport?”

If you don’t care about concussions for NFL players --or if you kick in your TV when an official flags a defender for unnecessary roughness on a helmet-to-helmet hit -- the sentence above should give you pause.

If you feel like it’s OK that the Browns allowed Colt McCoy to reenter a game after suffering a head injury and that it’s OK former tight end Ben Utecht is already having major problems with post-concussion syndrome and that it’s OK teams can hedge their bets by calling an in-game concussion a “stinger,” maybe you should think about your own child playing football.

Do you still think it’s OK that your 6-year-old might be suffering multiple concussions in a season? At least the NFL players can make the choice. The 6-year-old can’t.

That’s why the Sports Legacy Institute and Nowinski as president CEO held a press conference Friday to announce a proposal that would assign a “hit count” to a football player in the same way a “pitch count” is assigned to a youth pitcher.

As Nowinski says, science doesn’t know the answer to how many head hits it takes to cause permanent brain damage, in the same way that science doesn’t know how many cigarettes it takes to cause lung cancer. But the SLI's goal is to determine a standard number this year and then convince youth sports league by 2013 to turn that figure into permanent policy.

“We need to make aware that hits to the head have serious consequences,” Nowinski said. “It’s not being addressed at the youth level when brains are most vulnerable.”

One problem: I’ve never gotten the impression NFL players care much about their long-term health when they’re playing the game, and when I talked to a number of Super Bowl participants last year, I got the impression that players didn’t feel the need to keep their kids away from the game either.

The players know the dangers; they apparently just don’t have a problem putting their kids in harm’s way. Isaac Kacyvenski and Colts center Jeff Saturday disagreed with me Friday. They said players do, in fact, care.

“I have the exact opposite reaction from talking to players,” said Kacyvenski, the former NFL linebacker who was a 2006 Seahawks Super Bowl co-captain. “We’ve had discussions at length with players who are worried behind the scenes. They're worried about their future. The long-term consequences are unclear.”

Saturday, who along with Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is supporting the SLI and its initiatives, agreed with Kacyvenski: “I don’t know many football players who go with what you’re saying. I haven’t seen it.”

Saturday, on the other hand, was concerned enough about the issue to forbid his son from playing padded football until he turned 11. Before then, his boy played flag football. That’s because, as Saturday explained to his kids, it’s daddy’s job to play this high-risk, high-reward game. Football, he says, is supposed to be fun for you. So, if you’re scared, don’t take the head shot. Let it go, because it’s not a big deal.

Saturday, simply put, has to know (and he does) that he’s advocating for his children. Frankly, that’s the kind of attitude I expected to hear when I asked some Packers and Steelers last year. I expected the debate that Saturday and Kacyvenski gave me on Friday.

“In the NFL, a ton of it is awareness,” Saturday said. “We want our men to know, these are the symptoms we need to look for. I’m a 36-year-old man and I can tell you when I have a headache that’s not going away, I’m not sleeping as well, I don’t feel as good. Six-year-olds or 8-year-olds or 10-year-olds, they’re just going to deal with it. They want to go play in the yard. They’re not going to tell you, ‘I’m restless and cranky.’ They don’t communicate in the same way. They don’t know always how to process the information. You have to take it out of their hands.”

Nowinski is quick to point out that the public's brain injury awareness has exploded in the past five years, but when players like Rob Gronkowski or Brian Urlacher say they’d lie to doctors to hide a concussion, that doesn’t do his cause any favors.

“Everybody is accountable,” Nowinski said. “The reality is we’re talking about dramatic culture change. We’re talking somewhat about redefining manhood.”

And if the next generation of players aren’t as good as their predecessors because they’ve devoted less time to padded practice, that’s OK by him.

“If we create a generation of slightly worse tacklers with dramatically healthier brains, that’s a win,” Nowinski said. “I’ll live with that.”

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