Head-first in sports Games should be about sportsmanship, not hitting hard

We are ruthless when it comes to hitting people.”

When I read the above quote recently in the Sports section of the The News Tribune, attributed to a youth football coach, it occurred to me that the sport has entirely lost its focus.

It was always my impression that the game of youth football was about scoring touchdowns and sportsmanship, not about hurting people.

That was also the impression of the framers of Washington’s Zackery Lystedt Law. Named after a 13-year-old football player from Maple Valley who suffered significant brain damage after being sent back onto the field following a concussion, the Zackery Lystedt Law states that coaches and players must undergo annual education about the signs and symptoms of concussions, and that any player experiencing such symptoms must be removed from play, and cannot be returned to practice or competition until cleared by a medical doctor.

When signed in May of 2009, the Lystedt Law became the first in the nation specifically designed to reduce the incidence and recurrence of traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), what we commonly call “concussions,” in youth sports. In the three years since, 41 other states have followed suit by enacting similar laws, while professional sports leagues – particularly the NFL – have made brain injury awareness a top priority.

The stakes are high.

It is estimated by the CDC that 67,000 diagnosed TBIs occur each year during high school football season. There are also a large number that go undiagnosed, mainly occurring at practices, where the kids are instructed to “tough it out” and take a moment to “clear the cobwebs.”

This culture of “clearing the cobwebs” or “getting your bell rung” has been around at least since the days of leather helmets and pigskins. Indeed, going right back out onto the field after a significant “head knock” has even been viewed by many in sports with a perverse sense of pride. It’s sometimes lauded by coaches, teammates and media as a sign of toughness or a willingness to put team before self.

The evidence from all medical sources, however, indicates that it is not typically one single large blow that causes long-term brain damage, but repeated smaller hits to the head – the dozens, or even hundreds, of smaller “head knocks” that occur throughout a season, or over many seasons, in practices and games.

The same data, as reported by the Center for Disease Control indicates that it is not at the professional level where traumatic brain injury begins, but in youth sports. In fact, a recent CDC study stated that youth football players are four times more likely than their peers to suffer from brain-related diseases later in life, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

And it’s not limited to football, either – soccer (particularly girls soccer) and ice hockey each report a large number of TBIs each year, while many which occur in cycling, skateboarding and other less formally regulated activities go unreported.

For any parent or youth coach, these statistics are staggering. However, sports can be a valuable part of a child’s psychological and social development, teaching such values as sportsmanship and teamwork. That’s why it’s so important for us to focus on changing the culture at the grassroots level so that our children can reap these benefits without putting their futures at risk. There is simply too much at stake to ignore the problem.

The Tacoma Public School District recently reinstated contact football to middle schools, including practices in pads and helmets. These players are age 11-to-14, sixth- through eighth-graders. Our schools have what seems like an obvious responsibility to turn out graduates who are not brain damaged. Yet by the time they receive their diplomas, these young athletes will have endured five to seven years’ worth of accumulated hits to the head, all during a crucial stage of brain development.

By comparison, the new NFL collective bargaining agreement includes restrictions on the number of practices in which players can wear helmets and pads. Why do we have fewer restrictions on the brutality suffered by our 11-year-old boys than the NFL does for its paid professionals?

Almost none of these children will be playing football a decade from now. However, the emotional and cognitive effects of the repeated TBIs they have suffered will haunt them for the rest of their lives. That’s why Dr. Robert Cantu of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, one of the foremost physicians on head trauma, has recommended that youth should not play contact sports until age 14, when their neck muscles are stronger and better able to support the skull in a contact situation.

Kids, of course, don’t understand the risks of repeated head trauma – they want to be “tough,” because that’s the way they’ve been taught football players are supposed to be.

It is those “teachers,” therefore – coaches, school administrators, and even more specifically, parents – who must take the responsibility for understanding the seriousness of this issue, and protecting the children in their care. They have all the power. They can change the school system, hold coaches accountable, and educate their children and serve as role models for what is right.

We cannot prevent head injuries, nor can we cure them; what we can do is offer education. It’s time to stop playing dumb.

Doug Andeassen of Tacoma is president of Washington Youth Soccer.