EDITORIAL: New report detailing brain disease in football players should concern parents

York Dispatch
  • A new study on brain disease in football players produced some alarming numbers.
  • Of the brains studied, the vast majority showed some indications of CTE.
  • CTE is caused by repeated blows to the head, which are common occurrences in football.

In a few weeks, young athletes from every corner of York County will take part in an annual late-summer tradition.

The constant head blows in football do not come without some serious risks.

They'll charge onto fields throughout the York-Adams League for the opening night of high school football.

Football Friday nights are a classic part of Americana, with blaring bands, leaping cheerleaders and roaring crowds.

If you’re a parent of one of those teenage boys, however, a recent study should give you some reason for concern.

There are risks — sometimes serious risks — in playing the most popular sport in America today.

That point was driven home like a sledgehammer recently when research on 202 former football players found evidence of brain disease in a majority of them — 177 to be exact. The brains tested came from players at all levels — pro, college and high school. In fact, the brains of three of  the 14 high school players tested showed signs of brain disease.

Report: Brain disease found in nearly all former football players

It was the largest update ever on chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which is a debilitating condition that can cause a range of serious symptoms, including memory loss, depression and impulsivity. There is no known treatment.

CTE is believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head. Football, in case you haven’t noticed, is a game where heads bang almost constantly.

How serious is this? Just ask former Penn State standout John Urschel, who recently quit the game. According to his Baltimore Ravens teammates, Urschel's decision was directly related to the report's findings. Urschel, you see, is a math genius, and repeated blows to his head could destroy his promising mathematics future. 

In surprise, ex-Penn State standout John Urschel tells Baltimore Ravens that he's retiring

Still many questions: The report doesn’t confirm that the condition is present in all football players. It simply reflects a high occurrence in samples at a Boston brain bank that studies CTE. Many donors or their families contributed because of the players’ repeated concussions and troubling symptoms before they died. At this time, CTE can only be diagnosed by examining brains after death.

There are still many unanswered questions about the study, including how common CTE is in the general football population and if a player’s lifestyle habits — including alcohol, drugs, steroids and diet — might also contribute to acquiring the disease.

Still, the numbers are troubling, to say the least.

Taking precautions: Don’t get us wrong. We’re not demanding that high school football be banned, or anything close to it. All we’re suggesting is that parents, coaches and administrators do everything in their power to protect our young athletes.

If you’re a parent, it might be wise to keep your child away from tackle football until his body and brain have had some time to develop. It would seem prudent to wait until at least the seventh grade. Of course, that’s easier said than done when the child you love is constantly imploring you to play the game.

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If you’re a coach, you should make sure to teach the players proper blocking and tackling techniques so that  the number of head and neck blows are reduced. That should include the “heads-up” tackling form that emphasizes correct body posture at the moment of impact.

And if you’re an administrator, you should make sure that the athletes under your charge have all the proper equipment to reduce the risk of head injuries. Proper training and medical personnel also are needed to constantly monitor and treat the players.

Risks can't be eliminated: No matter the precautions, however, the risks in a collision sport such as football can never be eliminated.

Ultimately, it’s up to the parents to determine if the risks are worth the fitness benefits and character lessons that the game provides.

It must be an informed decision, and carefully examining the latest research should be a part of that decision.

It’s the loving thing to do when your child's health is at stake.