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Head Injuries and Young Football Players

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Neurological damage to young players will destroy the game if the problem isn't fixed.

Wikipedia Commons

There are two things on my mind today regarding football. And neither is what I expected to be thinking about with the 2013 college football season less than 100 hours away.

First, on Saturday, August 24, Zack Darlington, the quarterback for the Apopka (FL) Blue Darters and a Nebraska QB recruit was hit as he ran out of bounds. He was knocked unconscious for a short time and was flown via air ambulance to the hospital. Darlington suffered a concussion, which was reportedly his second this summer. The game, and his injury, were broadcast live to an ESPN nationwide audience.

Second, I watched an encore of the terrific PBS Frontline documentary "Football High" this morning. For those who haven't seen it, it's about the high stakes world of elite high school football. A large part of the show is dedicated to the increasing evidence that the cumulative effect of sub-concussive injuries will have debilitating effects on players.

Let's face it. As a society we know this is happening, but we don't care. We pretend we care, and when an injury like Darlington's occurs, we might discuss why it's happening and how to prevent it. But deep down we don't want our football to change.

For instance, in the article linked above, there were these additional tidbits of information inserted into the article as though they were of equal importance to the news that a young man may have experienced a life-changing traumatic head injury:

Darlington completed 11 of 19 passes for 96 yards and two touchdowns before the injury.

Daquon Isom scored three touchdowns and accounted for 267 total yards, including 112 rushing, 61 receiving and 94 on a kickoff-return score.

Apopka, the top-ranked team in the 8A preseason state poll, will host Oak Ridge on Friday night.

Why? Because what we really care about is the product on the field, not the young men delivering it. That's why high school football is on ESPN in the first place.

In 2009 Malcolm Gladwell penned an article in the New Yorker asking "How are football and dogfighting alike"? The answer is that both are violent activities with the participants expected to accept risks to their personal safety and long-term well-being for the temporary entertainment value to the audience. (The differences are obvious, but they are pretty irrelevant for this article, so I'm not going to go down that road.) Gladwell focuses on injuries to NFL players, which was getting a lot of press four years ago. Since then, however, further research has shown that the danger of permanent damage from what would be considered routine high school football play is real.

Tom Talvage, who is interviewed for the Frontline documentary, is the director of the Purdue MRI facility and coauthored a study that found significant memory impairment in high school football players who had never been diagnosed with a concussion.

Bill Connelly addresses this issue in his book, Study Hall, its Stats and its Stories. More than 100 years ago college football faced a similar crisis. in 1905 there were 18 deaths attributed to college football. There were calls to shut it down. Teddy Roosevelt himself intervened to save the sport, spearheading a committee that developed rule changes to make the game safer. The crisis facing football today is no less threatening to its long term survival.

And whither Zack Darlington? If Coach Pelini is truly the man I believe he is, he should rescind the scholarship offer to play football at the University of Nebraska and replace it with an equally valuable non-athletic scholarship. To allow Darlington to play football for the University of Nebraska would be to place the entertainment of football fans above the long-term safety of a player. To do that would move the University perilously close to dogfighting.