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Dr. Bob Sanborn Headshot

The End Of High School Football In America?

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Americans eat, drink, and sleep football. Fall marks the beginning of football season, and fans across the country are coming together to enjoy the thrill of weekends watching their favorite teams battle it out on the field. Football is a part of who we are as Americans -- it's the definitive American sport. But while we cheer for our home team and revel in watching players get tackled to the ground we would be remiss not to think about the unfortunate players who suffer great harm from this beloved sport.

Serious injuries, including head trauma, are common in football. While we might write off these injuries as consequences for playing the game -- these are grown men after all with multi-million dollar contracts who know the risks they are taking -- can we really say the same about high school and youth league football players? Unfortunately, the growing awareness of the risk of head injury is beginning to have a significant impact on moms and dads. Parents are keeping kids from the youth football field in increasing numbers, and the science backs them up. Is this the beginning of the end for football? Is football destined to go the way of boxing in America?

With each additional news story about another young football player who suffered a major head injury during practice or a game, parents are increasingly keeping their children out of the game. But for so many places throughout the country, football is not just a game. It's a way of life, and some towns even shut down entirely to gather at the high school football stadium on Friday night. With recruitment for future professional star athletes beginning as early as high school and players being cherry picked to win scholarships and highly-coveted spots on top collegiate teams, does the risk of injury outweigh potential stardom for some players?

The National Football League's revenues rise each year, with a new television contract set to bring in an average of $7 billion annually starting in 2014. Indeed, the Super Bowl is no longer the league's only spectacle: NFL games were 31 of the 32 most watched television events last fall. Football's predominance extends well past the NFL; college football fans pack the nation's largest stadiums on Saturdays and high school recruits televise and tweet their college commitments to hundreds of thousands of followers.

Simply put, football is a juggernaut. However, this host of safety concerns spell trouble for the sport. Although all sports carry a risk of injury, football's violent nature and "gladiator" culture place it in a category of its own, especially regarding head trauma. The reality behind hits to the helmet is far more damaging than merely "getting your bell rung" -- the momentum from contact propels a player's brain against the walls of his skull, repeatedly, throughout plays, practices, games, and seasons. Given this wear and tear, it is little surprise to see that former NFL players are three to four times more likely to suffer from brain diseases, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Arising from repeated concussions, CTE can cause symptoms of dementia and lead to erratic, even suicidal behavior. Studies of deceased football players' brains show that CTE can develop at any point in a player's career, even as early as high school.

Children may be especially at risk for brain injuries due to the fact that their brains are still developing, making it extremely important to protect them from head trauma. Parents need to be aware of the signs of brain injury, including problems concentrating, headaches, and in some instances, behavioral issues.

This new science stands against decades of coaches and parents telling athletes to "get back in the game" after head injuries, and parents are starting to take notice. A survey conducted by ESPN Research and the Global Strategy Group shows that 57% of parents are less likely to allow their children to play youth football after learning more about concussions. Many say that padding and better helmets are the answer, but too many of us know football coaches that push for more, with an utter disregard for safety. As a result, parents are beginning to push back and are placing their kids in other sports regardless of the claims of new helmet makers.

Few forces are more powerful than a concerned mother. Across the nation, moms and dads are beginning to understand the dangers and long-term repercussions of playing football and are growing more concerned every day. As entertaining as the game may be, and as much as I like my college football on fall Saturdays, I can't help but think about the grave risks that children playing the game face every time they suit up.

While the NFL is finally waking up and beginning to address these serious safety concerns, many high school programs are doing little to nothing to improve safety standards, and having our young boys "man up" is not a solution to potential head injury. It is up to parents and community members to hold our local schools and recreation programs accountable and demand action to protect our children. Superficial changes seem to be in the making at some levels, however if the sport at every level does not make major and substantive changes soon, the worry over our children's safety will be the death of the great American sport of football.

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