Sometimes I come across an article or story that leave a strong and lasting impression — one I want to share immediately with readers of this blog. Ever since I read “This Is Your Brain On Football” by Paul Solotaroff, in Rolling Stone, more than two-and-a-half years ago, I’ve wanted to share it. I’ve been waiting and waiting for the article to be made available on the magazine’s web-based archive and now, finally, it is.
First, though, a warning: If you have a child who plays youth, middle school, or high school football, (or sports where concussions are common, like soccer, hockey, basketball, or cheerleading), this article may/should shock you. For those fans like myself, who simply like to watch football or follow our favorite teams and players, the shock you feel may be profound. For those of us living in Southwestern Pennsylvania, where football is king, the story of one young player with a dream to play pro football is not at all atypical:
That isn’t merely the Pittsburgh talking in him, though it seems like every male in this yellow-and-black town wants to be Troy Polamalu, or hit like him. Since he was old enough to walk or, more like it, run, Eric has craved contact the way fat kids crave soft serve. At 16, playing flanker for his high school team, the perennial section champs North Allegheny, he goes up for a pass, cracks helmets with a safety and bangs his head on the turf when he lands. By the time he’s 17, he’s had a couple of concussions that his parents, Joan and Mark, know about, and maybe another couple that they don’t. “I kept him out of football as long as I could – he knew I didn’t want him to play,” says Joan, an ex-flight attendant who stopped flying long ago so she could ferry her three kids to their games. “He was always so driven, but clever, too; he could talk you into anything,” she says. “In the end, he finally wore down my resistance.”
Two paragraphs in and you know this isn’t going to end well for Eric, similar to how it didn’t end well for better-known players like Steeler Mike Webster, whose mental decline after a Hall-of-Fame career was both horrific and public:
This was worse than going mad – this was going dark, the lights in his head extinguishing as he watched. By the time he died, at 50, of a coronary, there was nothing left of Webster but the brain he gave to science, a grotesquely tangled slurry of dead connections. Fittingly, that brain has been moving mountains since. It’s a large part the reason we’re paying attention to concussions and finally thinking in earnest about their toll.
Adults making informed decisions about their own health is one thing:
Missing in the discussion are the millions of others who can’t give legal consent: They aren’t old enough to sign the release forms. Each year, according to one study, up to 3.8 million Americans suffer a concussion on playgrounds or in contact sports, and the majority of them are children. That’s a staggering number, both in human suffering and the costs exacted on their families. It is also very surely an undercount. “The large majority of concussions don’t render kids unconscious, so neither they nor their coaches know they’ve happened,” says Dr. Robert Cantu, chair of neurosurgery at Emerson Hospital, the co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) and the nation’s leading authority on concussions. “Boys in particular don’t tell us when something’s the matter. The real number is way north of 4 million.”
Dr. Cantu is the same concussion expert we heard from yesterday on The PediaBlog, who is part of the “Safer Soccer Initiative” to ban headers in soccer for players under 14 years old. Because of his research into the effects of concussions in young athletes, he has been urging parents to keep their kids out of football until 14. Like research showing these facts:
“About 90 percent of kids with concussions heal fine with proper rest and precautions,” he notes. For reasons not understood, though, the remaining 10 percent contract the malaise called post-concussion syndrome, or PCS. Every day in his office at this suburban hospital a half-hour west of Boston, he sees boys and girls with some of the 26 symptoms on the PCS checklist. Fatigue, dizziness, memory failure; lightheadedness, nausea, lack of focus: these can linger indefinitely in shifting clusters, costing patients a year of school or even more. The bigger blow, however, is to their mental development. “There’s an epidemic of kids whose normal trajectory is permanently stunted by head injury,” says Cantu. Over time, some “pass grades again and are thought of as fine, but might have been superior instead of average.”
NFL teams have already opened training camp for this season; high school and college camps will soon follow. I encourage all parents, and all football lovers, to read the rest of Paul Solotaroff’s article. For those who have kids with a dream to play football, this is essential reading.