The dangers of concussions in football are well known. Much of the recent debate has focused on professional football. But a startling and well-documented report in Newsday this week provides compelling evidence that the problem begins in high school. So the discussion and search for solutions must begin there, too.
Can we make football safe for our children?
Newsday reporter Jim Baumbach examined data from more than 100 Long Island high schools with football programs and found:
Nearly 900 football helmets this season were rated by researchers as "low performers" in reducing the risk of concussion.
At only three schools -- Oyster Bay, Port Jefferson and Northport -- do all helmets have the highest safety rating.
Last year, 364 concussions occurred during games or practices at 90 schools reporting data.
The average high school football player receives 650 hits to the head each season -- each with the same impact a passenger in a seat belt would get in an auto accident at speeds up to 35 mph.
The numbers are placed in a troubling spectrum. Thirteen high school football players nationally in the last two years died directly from football injuries, most of them brain injuries, the highest two-year total in 30 years. Four have died this season of various causes.
That's the high-profile tip of a large, ominous iceberg. Up to 70 percent of high school football players sustain a concussion at some point. Nearly 30 percent of former NFL players will be stricken with a debilitating brain condition like Alzheimer's or Parkinson's diseases, twice the frequency as the general population.
All this is happening despite rule changes and improved training methods, tackling techniques and equipment. A new state regulation this year limits the amount of full-contact hitting high school teams can do each week. It isn't enough.
Teens are more susceptible to brain injuries than adults. Their necks are weaker, their brains not as developed. Some experts see a Catch-22 in making their helmets better: A player who feels safer and more invulnerable will play even more aggressively.
And yet, our kids must have the best equipment. Schools should not delay in procuring better helmets. We also need to examine rules and policies. Should medical personnel such as trainers be required at all practices and games to be able to identify concussion symptoms in players? Are we doing all we can?
Football has tremendous emotional resonance in this country. Few activities more strongly bind together many communities. But it's the game itself that's harming our children. Some high schools around the country have dropped football for safety reasons. Participation is declining. Parents are reconsidering their kids' involvement. Eventually, taxpayers will rebel at having to pay personal injury lawsuits.
We must make football as safe as possible. And if it can't be made safe, we must ask whether we should let our children continue to play it.