A recent article in the Statesman Journal about moving junior varsity football from Thursdays to Mondays has some disturbing quotes about the prevalence of traumatic brain injuries.
The Assistant Director of the Oregon School Athletic Association said, speaking of students who might play both in the JV and the varsity games: “Sometimes the kids that are concussed, it does not present itself the very next day. It might take a couple of days. So [moving the JV games from Thursday to Monday] gives longer to evaluate those type of kids.”
How common is that? “The kids that are concussed.” Sounds pretty common.
And the head coach at Sprague High School had this to say about the change: “We’re kind of in a battle right now; I hate to call it a battle, but we’re kind of in a battle with the medical community over the game of football. We certainly don’t want to lose the game that we love.”
“A battle with the medical community”? Perhaps he was referring to the editorial in the New York Times by Dr. Bennett Omalu entitled “Don’t Let Kids Play Football.” Dr. Omalu is credited with the discovery of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or C.T.E., that has resulted in the impairment and death of many former NFL players. Dr. Omalu wrote, “If a child who plays football is subjected to advanced radiological and neurocognitive studies during the season and several months after the season, there can be evidence of brain damage at the cellular level of brain functioning, even if there were no documented concussions or reported symptoms. If that child continues to play over many seasons, these cellular injuries accumulate to cause irreversible brain damage.”
Or perhaps the coach was referring to an editorial in the American Journal of Bioethics by Dr. Steven Miles and Dr. Shailendra Prasad that puts it bluntly: “Health professionals should call for ending public school tackle football programs.” The statistics they cite are chilling: “Five to 20% of students experience concussions in one season of play. Nine to 12-year-old players experience an average of 240 head impacts per season; high school players 650 head impacts per season. An initial football concussion increases the risk of a subsequent concussion three or fourfold. School football concussions are often followed by weeks of impaired academic performance, memory disturbances, headaches and absenteeism.”
It’s time for Superintendent Perry and Salem-Keizer School District Board to do what the school board in Maplewood, Missouri did last year: listen to the doctors, and end the football program. From now on the centerpiece of school sports in this suburb of St. Louis will be soccer. The question for their school board, according to the board president, was this: “Can we field a team that is competitive and safe for the kids to perform?” The answer that the doctors are giving is overwhelmingly negative.
If our school board is not concerned enough about our students’ health and safety, maybe they should be concerned about liability. In 2015 an Iowa court awarded a student a million dollars for his school’s negligence in diagnosing and acting on a concussion. Another student in Illinois who suffered a severe concussion asked a court to order medical tests of former high school players going back to 2002.
There is some evidence that school football is dying a slow death all on its own as students and parents with safety concerns just opt out. One report indicates that the number of high school football players is down 2.4% from five years ago and Pop Warner football, for younger children, has seen larger decreases.
Another ethical consideration is whether all of us who support public schools with our tax dollars should be forced to support a school activity that has unquestionably been shown to be harmful to students.
For all these reasons it may be time for Superintendent Perry and the Salem-Keizer School Board to make the same decision that the Maplewood school board made. Or, if they are not ready to do that, at a minimum they should convene a task force of local doctors who are knowledgeable in neuropathology and bioethics to study the issue and make a recommendation.
How many of our students will experience traumatic brain injuries before something is done?