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A Dangerous Game: Parents in favor of football despite risks

POSTED: July 21, 2012 6:02 p.m.

Dr. Tom Ross is of the belief that football is a game of acceptable risks. While there’s always the possibility of injury in a game where physical contract is present, it’s no more dangerous than daily activities we all take part in, such as traveling in a car.

“As a parent, safety is the most important thing,” said Ross, a general surgeon and parent of a football player at Lakeview Academy. “We want to make sure we keep the game safe.

“I feel like the life lessons that football teaches, such as being a team player, self sacrifice and staying physically fit are all worthwhile endeavors.”

And even with a growing focus on dangers of head injuries and concussions in football, parents across the country are showing they feel the same way.

In Gainesville, youth leagues drew between 216-255 participants the past three seasons with no distinct trends year to year. And Pop Warner Football, the nation’s largest youth football organization, has recorded around 400,000 players participating nationally in each of the past three seasons, with a slight upward trend, according to an organization spokesman.

“Actually, little league football is pretty good,” said Dr. Gary Brock of Houston in a 2011 interview with the Houston Chronicle. “It’s not the safest place a kid can be, but it’s not the most dangerous either.

“A lot of parents have that impression, but at the young age groups, pre-puberty, we don’t see that at the clinical level.”

The consistent participation numbers extend into high school. Since 2007, there have been between 1.13-1.14 million high school players nationwide.

In fact, most see a stark contrast in terms of safety between youth football and the game fans see on television.

In the five years that Matt Whitmire has coached with the North Hall Junior Trojans, he says the program hasn’t experienced any player concussions.

“It’s apples and oranges,” Whitmire said about the difference between youth and professional football safety. “When you’re talking about NFL football, you’re talking about 260-, 270-pound men that run a 4.4 (second) 40 (yard dash).”

Different set of concerns

David Stringer has coached 11- and 12-year-old football players with Gainesville Parks and Recreation for 14 years. Even though the athletes he works with are smaller and don’t move as fast as their older counterparts, Stringer said that coaches have a heavy responsibility to make sure the game remains as safe as possible.

First of all, Stringer says that making sure players are instructed on proper tackling technique is a must. Also, especially close attention has to be given to the equipment, since young players are at an age when they’re growing so rapidly.

Whitmire says in his league, the policy is to have no helmets in use that are more than 3 years old.

“If we’re teaching kids the proper way to play the game, it’s still safe,” Stringer said.

Pop Warner Football has implemented new rules for youth football starting this season, limiting the amount of time players can utilize tackling to no more than 1/3 of practice time, along with putting players a maximum of 3 yards apart in full-speed tackling drills.

The youngest of Tina Arrowood’s three sons, 10-year-old Chandler, is currently a player in the East Hall Junior Vikings organization. As a parent of a player in the league since 2000, she says that the most extreme injury she’s seen is a broken arm. She says that the size of the players is a major factor for why the game remains safe, in her eyes.

“Football is no more dangerous than any other sport,” Arrowood said. “Any time you play a contact sport, there’s a risk of injury.

“I’m more worried about the heat.”

Aiming to reduce the risk

No helmet can completely ensure that a young player won’t receive a concussion, even those that meet the standards of the National Operating Committee on Standards in Athletic Equipment. Still, extensive steps are being taken to make sure football is as safe as possible.

Kevin Guskiewicz is a researcher at the University of North Carolina and a member of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee. He is testing whether sensors in helmets or mouth guards can reliably measure head impacts and help improve helmets and rules.

One advantage Guskiewicz found for youth football is that players can learn proper technique in developmental leagues before going into the high school game against bigger and more-seasoned players.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also made it a point of emphasis to alert coaches, parents and athletes to the dangers of head injuries, noting it’s important not to let a player who experienced a suspected a concussion return to action until evaluated by a specialist.

According to the CDC, any repeat concussions before the original concussion has fully healed can slow the recovery time. It can also increase the likelihood of long-term problems for the athlete in question.

“If we see a player that was part of a big hit or collision, we pull him out of the game and monitor his condition,” Stringer said. “If we feel he needs to sit out a week afterward, we’ll do that.”

Making concussion assessment objective

Local monitoring for football players and concussions is serious business. ImPACT testing is one of the latest tools doctors have to detect whether a player has endured a concussion, which isn’t something that shows up on a CAT Scan or MRI.

Lakeview Academy implemented the program this year for all middle school and high school student athletes.

Prior to the season, athletes are gauged individually in different areas, such as attention span, short-term memory, non-verbal problem solving and reaction time. If a suspected head injury or concussion occurs during the season, the athlete in question is then given the same battery of tests and the results are compared to how they fared previously in the same 20-minute examination.

“The ImPACT test is good because it takes the guessing out of it,” said Ross, whose son Carter is a rising senior at Lakeview. “It’s an objective test.”

Gainesville vascular surgeon Dr. Tim Fulenwider, the team physician for Gainesville High, said his opinion is that no player should have physical contact for at least two weeks following a concussion.

He says research he’s seen indicates that a subsequent concussion within a month of the initial hit leaves the door open for more significant long-term effects.

“Recognition of concussions is the most important thing,” Fulenwider said.

Still a proponent of playing

If anyone was to take the stance that football was too dangerous, Josh Haddock certainly has reason to feel that way. However, his love for football hasn’t subsided even the smallest amount, even though he could have easily died from a subdural hematoma, caused by bleeding on the brain from a hit and subsequent collapse at practice the following afternoon in preparation for his senior season at North Forsyth High two years ago.

“There was no major hit that I took in practice that day,” Haddock said. “But doctors discovered that I had bleeding on the brain, and that’s what made me collapse at practice the following day.”

Had it not been for the quick action of then North Forsyth athletic trainer Katie Caughell, doctors believe that the 19-year-old Haddock’s chances of survival would have been greatly diminished.

However, Haddock doesn’t want football to get a bad rap. He’s now completely healthy with no lingering symptoms, just shy of the two year mark of his collapse and trying to land with a college program. He’d even insist on his child to play football, should he ever have a son.

“If I ever have a son, he’s got no choice,” Haddock said. “He’s going to play football.”


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