In 2015, a Sports Illustrated article profiled the deaths of 11 high school football players.
Five of the deaths were due to severe blows to the head. And as recently as November 2016, a 15-year-old Texas football player died after suffering a head injury while playing football.
"There are about 1.3 million high school and 2.8 million youth football players in this country. That's more than 4 million children and teenagers playing football," Ralph Nader and Kenneth Reed wrote in a Chicago Tribune op-ed. "Compare that number with the 1,700 or so adults playing football in the NFL. Yet, the nation's focus, when it comes to concussions, is on the NFL. That needs to be flipped."
Nader and Reed make an excellent point about spotlighting the safety issues surrounding millions of young athletes. And their concerns about head injuries are echoed by parents across the country. To better protect our children playing football, it's crucial to have a better understanding of concussions.
A roundtable discussion at UCLA shed some light on the current state of concussion research and how we can better educate people on the risks.
Roman Phifer, a 15-year NFL veteran and three-time Super Bowl champion, sat down with Adriana Galvan, a professor and director of the Developmental Neuroscience Laboratory at UCLA, and Dr. John DiFiori, chief of sports medicine at UCLA, for this informative talk.
Watch the full roundtable discussion right here:
One of the first things they discussed was what exactly a concussion is.
"Basically a direct or indirect blow to the head or neck that results in a sequence of symptoms and clinical findings that are characteristics of fogginess," explained DiFiori.
That definition is a long way from what Phifer experienced growing up. He recalled, "Back then, the protocol was, you know, you have a concussion ... tell me how many fingers you’re holding up or who’s the president or what the date was, then you’re good to go."
Considering football has the highest concussion rate among sports, it's important to understand how to address it. "Most concussions will resolve in about 10 days," said DiFiori. He added that this is true for almost 90% of cases.
This is especially significant since many kids return to play the same day that they get a concussion. One wrong hit could cause severe effects down the road or, even in some cases, lead to death.
That's why Galvan stresses the importance of educating parents and young players on looking at things long term. "Adolescents are really primed to focus on the immediate, to focus on the reward, and that’s great in some contexts," she said. "But for them to really appreciate the potential dangers is important for them as well."
Some have called to eliminate youth football altogether, but this is a contentious idea.
Others are in favor of solutions that are less controversial and easier to implement. Limiting tackles in practice and getting rid of them completely for children below a certain age range could help reduce hits.
According to Practice Like Pros, 60% to 75% of head traumas occur during practice at the high school level. As a result, they suggest a time limit for full-contact practices and encourage players to report concussions right away. They also advocate for employing a full-time athletic trainer on every team, having an EMT on standby at every game, and supporting continuing scientific research. They'd even like to convert all youth leagues below ninth grade to flag football, a trend that has seen a meaningful rise.
Phifer stressed taking things a step further to make sure kids are playing properly. "You educate kids, you try to reduce the risk as much as possible," he said. "You tell them to keep [their] head up. You do all the other things that you can. You implement fines or penalties when kids are not doing it the right way."
What's key is taking action to make the sport as safe as possible.
Football is a meaningful sport for a lot of people, and Phifer talked about some of the game's positives beyond all the injuries. "The first thing that comes to mind is just being a part of something bigger than yourself," he said. "Having all these kids from different backgrounds, it doesn't matter about, you know, socioeconomic status. It doesn’t matter if you're rich or poor. We're all here together. Now you’re working for one common goal of trying to win and be successful and everyone's doing their part. So I think it really gives kids that development about teamwork and not being selfish."
Without question, there are countless Americans who love their football. But as the game continues to get bigger, we must also become better at taking care of players of all ages. By continuing to take action on that, it might be possible to accomplish what many athletes strive for in their careers — to change the game.