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America Is in a State of Denial When It Comes to Football

10/23/2013 10:00 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014
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Two excellent documentaries about the concussion crisis in football, The United States of Football and League of Denial, have recently come and gone. Both films garnered some attention from the general public. But instead of spurring a national discussion about the safety of the game and what to do about it -- from the peewee level to the NFL -- it's back to business as usual for players, coaches and parents.

It's a classic case of avoidance behavior. As a nation, we love football and we don't want to deal with the giant elephant in the room: football is a game that's inherently dangerous to the human brain, and there's really not much we can do about it.

Football is our great escape. It's fun. It's entertainment. We don't want reality to intrude.

But intrude it must because we're talking about people out on our football fields, not robots.

The brain simply wasn't built to withstand a game based on violent collisions. That's especially true for children, those 18 and under, whose brains aren't fully developed, and thus more vulnerable to trauma.

That fact, along with the fact that we have approximately 3.5 million youth football players and 1.3 million high school football players in this country, means the national spotlight needs to move from the relatively few adults playing professional football in the NFL to children playing youth and high school football.

Here's a brief synopsis of what we know today regarding football and the brains of our young people:

According to the Brain Injury Research Institute, 20 percent of high school football players sustain brain injuries in any given season. That's one out of five boys who are playing for the local high school football team.

It gets scarier. A Purdue study revealed that high school football players who were concussion free and didn't have any symptoms from brain trauma, actually had brain tissue damage similar to those players who had suffered concussions. Think about that for just a second... it means our sons are suffering brain injuries from subconcussive hits without coaches, trainers, parents or the athletes themselves even being aware of it.

The average high school football lineman takes 1,000 -- 1,500 shots to the head during a single football season, according to Boston University researchers. As such, the human brain literally gets abused during a typical high school football campaign.

The picture isn't any prettier in Pop Warner and other youth leagues.

Consider a 2012 study done by Virginia Tech and Wake Forest researchers. The study measured the g-forces of impacts to the heads of 7-year-old tackle football players and found that the impacts in a 7-year-old football game were comparable to those found in an adult football game -- some of them at 40gs.

"It looks like a pillow fight," Chris Nowinski, co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, said of peewee football games, "but the brain thinks it's in a war."

Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet -- or in this case, magic helmet -- that's going to save the day. Helmets are great for preventing skull fractures, but not for preventing concussions or sub-concussive brain trauma. That's because the brain is like Jell-O bouncing up against the walls of the skull. It's the whiplash effect that leads to concussions. That's why players can receive concussions without even being hit in the head. A blow to the chest can send the brain splashing against the skull with as much force as some head-to-head shots.

Admittedly, there are still a lot of answers about brain trauma, concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease associated with brain trauma, that we don't have. For example, why do some football players get CTE, and others don't? Is there a genetic predisposition?

(By the way, Ann McKee, a neurologist, pathologist and one of the country's leading brain researchers, has said, "Most NFL players are going to get this (CTE). It's just a matter of degree.")

My question is why do we have to wait for all the answers before we act? The growing mound of research we have is certainly overwhelming. We didn't wait until we had all the answers on cigarettes and lung cancer before we took action as a society.

One thing seems clear. We need to move the focus of the concussion discussion in this country from the NFL -- and even the college game -- to the high school and youth levels. As a whole, children between the ages of five and 18 certainly don't have the full capability, or level of maturity, to unilaterally give their consent to playing football.

This one's on us. We need to stop avoiding the issue and have a serious discussion about it.

According to public health researchers Lewis and Gregory Margolis, "Football-related head trauma and concussions have raised sentinel alarms, so all who care about children and young adults must not remain silent as this epidemic spreads."

What we need is a national town hall meeting on football, concussions and brain trauma so we can collectively address this issue head on. And who better to host and televise such a town hall than ESPN, the "worldwide leader in sports"?

After pulling out of its production partnership with PBS' Frontline on the League of Denial documentary in order to protect its relationship with the NFL, ESPN owes us one.