Sunday, January 19, 2020
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To IL high schools: prevent football concussions

The Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board last week called on Illinois schools to step up the fight against traumatic brain injuries from high school football.

“From brain-injury specialists and former NFL players who are scared to leave home for simple errands because they forget where they’re going, we have learned a lot about blows to the head and concussions in football,” they wrote. “This has forced the NFL and the NCAA to scramble for stronger safeguards when it comes to concussions, but we are long overdue in calling for tougher measures at the high school level.”

After the 2013 season, we called for a temporary moratorium on high school football until schools could better protect the long-term brain health of their student-athletes.

Not that we thought there would be a moratorium, of course. But we are very concerned about the effects of regular football play, mostly coming from helmet-to-helmet contact that seems unavoidable. Here’s what we wrote:

If nobody was at risk of being hurt permanently—and all brain injuries are permanent, given current medical science—I would wholly endorse (Football). In fact, Voxitatis took out full-page ads to support athletics in the football program booklets for a number of high schools (in 2013). That was before significant questions were raised about the concussion tests.

However, what football does is create a gladiator or “jock” mentality and injure brains permanently. As such, we can no longer support it and call on the Illinois High School Association to suspend it as a sanctioned sport immediately. The suspension can be lifted when research shows permanent injury is being “prevented,” not just given time to recover some corollary functionality. There are better ways to fulfill the mission of our schools that don’t involve permanent brain injury to our students. If the IHSA supports its member schools, the association’s board will take immediate action.

So, either the way the game is played has to change or tackle football can’t be supported as an athletic activity in our schools. We thought a temporary moratorium would prevent brain injuries while giving school officials, perhaps working through the Illinois High School Association, time to figure out a better and safer way to play the game.

We still think that. The Maryland State Board of Education recently approved concussion treatment guidelines they had installed as an emergency measure a few years earlier. A key element of the Maryland upgrade in brain safety was to disallow tackling that hits with the head. It’s known as the “Heads Up Football Program” from USA Football, and it was implemented for the 2014 season by the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, the Maryland counterpart of the IHSA for public schools.

It’s too early to know what effect this might have had, but it at least tries to “prevent” traumatic brain injury from happening to high school students on the football field.

The Sun-Times merely calls for medical staff with better training in brain injuries to be at the games and practices. This would be ineffective at preventing the brain injuries in the first place.

“These measures would not necessarily prevent concussions,” the Sun-Times acknowledged, “but they would go a long way in diagnosing them and establishing a strict protocol for clearance to play.”

But even if you could diagnose the brain injury with more certainty, the kid’s brain is still injured. Bottom line, the game needs to change. We need to prevent brain injuries, not just diagnose them, and modifying the clearance-to-play policies won’t help with that.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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