The Free Press, Mankato, MN

November 18, 2013

Our View:

Why It Matters: Our increasing awareness of concussions is having an impact on participation in youth football.

The Mankato Free Press

---- — A Twin Cities sports writer said it during a Twitter exchange last week: Concussion is a dangerous euphemism.

A concussion is a brain injury. It can heal quickly; it can heal excruciatingly slowly. It can be life-changing, personality-altering, even deadly.

And as we learn more about the effects of concussions — in particular the effects of repeated blows that shake the brain and bounce it around in the skull — the more troubling the outlook is for some of our favorite sports and the athletes who play them.

In the past week alone:

n Football legend Tony Dorsett went public with his diagnosis of brain damage;

n The Minnesota Twins shifted star catcher Joe Mauer to first base to lessen the chances of a repeat of the concussion that ended his 2013 season;

n A high school football player in Arizona, Charles Youvella, died a week ago today of a traumatic brain injury sustained in a playoff game; another in Missouri, Chad Stover, died Thursday of a brain injury sustained in October. At least five prep football players this year have been killed by head injuries, according to ESPN.

It may seem as if we have an sudden epidemic of sport concussions. The truth is, they’ve always been part of our games. We’re just more aware of them now than ever before — not just of the immediate injury, but of the lasting results that echo down the years.

No sport is truly immune to the risk; Twins fans have seen former MVPs Mauer and Justin Morneau struck down by concussions in recent seasons, as well as regulars Denard Span and Ryan Doumit. But football, a game based on weaponizing the body, is the focal point of concern.

Our newfound greater awareness of concussions may prove a long-term blessing to an athlete whose coach removes him from play; it is also, to some degree, deterring parents from allowing their children to run the risk of football period.

According to the National Sporting Goods Association, participation in tackle football has fallen almost 13 percent since 2011. Pop Warner, the nation’s largest youth football program, told ESPN participation fell 9.5 percent between 2010 and 2012.

Equipment alone is no solution. Tackle football is a collision sport, and while the helmet can protect the skull from a blow, it cannot hold the gelatin-like brain in place, cannot protect it from the skull itself. Boston University researchers estimate that the average prep football player takes 1,000 blows to the head in a season.

Football has grown into a significant cultural and economic force. How well that structure will withstand the threat posed by the game itself to the long-term health of its players? That is a truly multi-million dollar question, one that ultimately is going to be answered family by family as parents decide whether the risk of letting their son play is worth the reward.

Other view on this topic:

I covered the NFL over four decades dating back to 1972. Now semi-retired myself and five years removed from day-to-day football coverage, I have one main regret: not focusing more of my reporting and writing on the absolute brutality of the sport, particularly the painful post-football lives of so many players.

Instead, like many other sports journalists, I spent much of my career writing positive pieces about the league and its players — puffy features and breathless accounts of thrilling victories and agonizing defeats. But until the past decade or so, most of us glossed over the brutality of the sport. Shame on us.

We should have been on this story far earlier. It’s not as if this was a deep, dark secret. At every Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony each August in Canton, Ohio, it’s difficult to ignore former all-pros limping, leaning on canes or rolling onto the stage in wheelchairs. In conversations with countless former players, we hear about replaced knees, hips and shoulders, surgically repaired necks and backs. Worst of all, there’s clear evidence of memory loss and dementia from concussions either undiagnosed, shrugged off or totally ignored.

Leonard Shapiro, special to The Washington Post