Contact Sports—The Risks and Rewards
Apr 29, 2016 07:25AM
● By MARSHA R. SAKAMAKI
Football has been in the news lately with stories about professional NFL players choosing early retirement, as young as 24. One all-pro player, age 30, is turning down $16 million per year to retire early.
These occurrences could be due to the risk of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), which involves brain injury caused by physical contact; not only concussions but repetitive hits called sub-concussive where there are no immediate symptoms. Researchers from Boston University studied deceased NFL players. Of the 91 studied, 87 suffered from CTE, including a player that died at 27.
Looking at what football players put their bodies and minds through is relevant to the general public because many of our youth love sports. In addition to the benefits of exercise and fun, talented players can get full college scholarships and realize the dream of signing a pro contract that pays more than $10 million per year.
Parents are faced with a major decision, especially those whose children have sports talents. Should they allow them to play contact sports? If so, how early in life? And how do they balance the risk factors?
Pop Warner, the nation’s largest youth football league, has settled a lawsuit with a family whose son started playing in the league at 11 years old and committed suicide at age 25. The son’s autopsy showed severe signs of CTE. The suit contended that the degenerative brain disease came from repetitive brain trauma. The parents sued the league for $5 million in damages, alleging negligence, including failure to train coaches properly and limit practice contact. The league settled for an undisclosed amount. This lawsuit may very well open the floodgates for more lawsuits.
All contact sports organizations are now reviewing their rules, both those involving equipment and the extent of allowable contact. Some youth leagues are abandoning tackle football to focus on flag football. The Ivy League, which has played football since the 19th century, just announced that it is eliminating all full-contact hitting from practices during the regular season in an effort to limit exposure to head injury.
The focus on practice is interesting. One recent TV interview involved the coach of a young women’s soccer team, a sport not noted for its contact. She described how they practiced “headers,” where players use their heads to direct the ball during play. She observed that during practice, players might experience headers 100 times in an hour. Based on current thinking, that may change. Hockey and lacrosse rules are now also being reviewed. The future of contact sports may change dramatically, but in the meantime, parents have difficult choices.
After decades of denial, on March 15 a spokesman for the NFL came before Congress and stated, “There is a link between football and degenerative brain disorders like CTE.” The Third Circuit Court is currently involved in a potential settlement of cases previous to 2015. It’s possible that cases brought forward after 2015 will face the defense that players were put on notice that their decision to play football comes with acknowledged risk of degenerative brain disease.
If pro football players are put on notice, then we need to consider the same notice for football played in college, high school and youth leagues and make appropriate choices.
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