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The Universal Notebook: Don't use your head

Opinion

The Universal Notebook: Don't use your head

The fall high school sports season is upon us, and with it the season for concussions.

Football accounts for the most concussions among boys, soccer the most among girls. There are an estimated 300,000 sports-related concussions a year among high school and college athletes.

My advice: don’t use your head.

When daughter Tess was playing premier and high school soccer, we parents on the sidelines used to joke whenever a girl headed a long clearing kick that she had just lost a few points on her IQ and SATs. It was no joke. There is no safe way to have a soccer ball traveling 70 mph hit your head. High school girls should not head soccer balls.

Tess also played lacrosse and used to complain that she wished girls wore helmets and pads and could play full contact the way the boys do. Girls’ lacrosse coaches have resisted gearing up however, arguing that adding protection is just an invitation to more injuries. I was skeptical until a few years ago, but now I believe they are correct.

A 2011 article in The American Journal of Sports Medicine reporting on an 11-year study of “Trends in Concussion Incidence in High School Sports” found that “the percentages of concussions were highest in the helmeted sports of football and boys’ lacrosse. Previous studies have shown that the use of protective equipment does not have a conclusive effect on concussion risk in high-impact helmeted sports.”

Football helmets do not protect players, they just insulate them from the reality of the violence they are inflicting and suffering. Fortunately, you rarely see high school football players launching themselves head-first at runners like heat-seeking missiles. Shoulder tackles and gang tackles seem to account for most of the stops. But if you want to know what a lot of head trauma does to a football player, ask an NFL veteran.

The average NFL player sustains between 900 and 1,500 blows to the head in the course of a season. No wonder so many NFL veterans suffer memory loss, headaches, speech impairment, loss of concentration, depression, dementia and death from suicide. And these are not rare occurrences. There were 4,500 former players and family members who sued the NFL over the long-term effects of concussions from football. The recent settlement of that suit for $765 million over 20 years was just a drop in the NFL bucket, blood money to the gladiators who destroy their minds and bodies for our entertainment.

We live in a culture of violence, and football is the apotheosis of ritual violence, the athletic equivalent of war. As much as I love watching the Patriots do battle on Sunday, I have come to believe that football’s days are numbered.

When ESPN sports commentator Mike Wilbon, co-host of "Pardon the Interruption," stated on the air and wrote in a 2010 column that he was not going to allow his son to play organized football because of the risk of concussion, I knew the tide was beginning to turn against football.

“The risk is too great, and to what end?” Wilbon wrote.

Unless rules and equipment can be improved such that young student-athletes are not sustaining lifelong damage, it may be time for responsible adults to start phasing out high school football and boys’ lacrosse, and taking the header out of girls’ soccer.

What are we – parents, coaches, school administrators – thinking when we encourage such reckless and dangerous behavior in the name of athletic competition and school spirit?