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Reducing Concussion Risk in High School Football

Recent studies indicate that high school football players are nearly twice as likely to sustain a concussion as are college players.  Given the fact that nearly everyone agrees that a great many high school concussions go unreported compared to those in college football, the numbers surely are considerably larger.

A study conducted by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) , funded by the NFL and elaborated upon  in a fascinating Frontline documentary to a startling conclusion—while improving safety standards via football rules and equipment improvements may reduce injuries in the future, the size of the improvement from these changes is likely to be small.  The most important way to reduce potential long-term brain injuries is to change the culture of high school football.

An HBO Real Sports/Marist poll found that because of media exposure of the lawsuit filed by former NFL players and the size of the eventual settlement, most Americans today are aware of a connection between football and long-term brain injury.  In fact, about one-in-three families now say that this knowledge would make them less likely to allow their son to play football in high school.   While this is an encouraging statistic, the reality remains that thousands of fourteen years olds try out for football every fall as a royal road to popularity, proof of their toughness, and for some a future of fame and fortune as an NFL pro.  The truth is, there are still many parents and coaches that encourage these boys (albeit more tacitly than overtly) telling themselves “I’m great, coach” after a jarring helmet hit because they believe that the game and the team are more important than individual health.

A culture shift away from “getting back on the field at all costs” is the single most important way to protect these young adolescents from potentially catastrophic long-term risk. Because football season is very short, every game is important and the result is that all sorts of rationalizations are made for not removing a player when there is any doubt.   If players were praised for speaking up when they felt woozy rather than being silently looked down upon for doing so, great progress could be made.

Riddell, the largest manufacturer of football helmets, openly admits that helmets are ineffective for preventing concussions 95% of the time.    With so many Americans so passionate about football, it is time for them to recognize that changing the culture to prize brain health over winning a game is the greatest hope for preserving football as our most popular spectator sport for years to come.

Robert Hoyt, Ph.D. President, Allied Health Professionals LLC


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