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This is your brain on football


A walkout by members of the Grayson High School football team last week over strenuous workouts has been characterized as exhausted teens growing frustrated over grueling practice conditions. 

But are we downplaying the real health risks of the game? 

The players, who returned to practice the following day, were reportedly upset over full-force hitting in shorts. The Gwinnett high school students are not alone in their concerns about safety on the football field.

A study of the brains of 202 deceased NFL players found 99 percent had chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, a degenerative brain disease found in athletes playing sports that involve repetitive hits to the head.

Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the 2017 study found: 

The severity of CTE pathology was distributed across the highest level of play, with all former high school players having mild pathology and the majority of former college, semiprofessional, and professional players having severe pathology. Behavior, mood, and cognitive symptoms were common among those with mild and severe CTE pathology and signs of dementia were common among those with severe CTE pathology.

In an excellent article in Forbes about football and brain injuries, health journalist Tara Haelle interviewed Jim Chesnutt, an associate professor of orthopedics, rehabilitation and sports medicine at Oregon Health & Science University, who told her: “The studies are significant for those who have been playing football and contact sports for years at the collegiate and professional level. We are not yet sure if this applies to younger contact sport athletes, but we certainly would like to limit the number of head blows and injuries in athletes of all ages.” 

In reporting on football dangers in the past, many parents have told me their sons love the game, coaches and teammates. The parents understood there were risks, but felt everything in life holds risk. Football was teaching their sons responsibility and accountability, and perhaps would help them earn a college scholarship. 

Commenters on my articles on football health dangers would often insist young players were coddled. Similar remarks dominated the AJC Prep Zone blog about the Grayson walkout. 

Among them:

-So, you sit out on your coach that took you to a 10-2 record last year and a #1 ranking this year. Sometimes tough love makes you better. Football is not for the weak. Sports are not for the weak. 

-Get with the idea that kids today are sissies and not near as tough. Hence why they live with their folks till their mid-30's. Nothing wrong with making someone push their limits and earn something. And I'm young, so no need to construct some sorry response about catching up with the times.

In an online commentary, Steve Almond, author of “Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto,” wrote: 

Studies are now revealing the risks to younger players, whose brains are still developing. Over the past three years, 17 boys have died of traumatic brain injuries from playing football. That’s a horrifying figure, one that would put the kibosh on pastimes less sacred to us than football.

But in those same three years, hundreds of thousands of boys have sustained millions of sub-concussive events that could lead to brain disease later in life.

Football is a thrilling spectacle, and a sport that holds deep meaning to players and fans alike. It will never be banned, or sued out of existence. But players of all ages should know the risks they run. 

A school superintendent once told me if science were his only consideration, he’d shut down the high school football program because of the health threats and urge kids to try lacrosse, basketball or baseball. If field trips posed the same dangers, he said no high school parent would argue against dropping them, but football was sacred. The 12 people who normally attend school board meetings would swell to 1,200, he predicted, if eliminating football was on the agenda.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.