07/26/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Education in Chicago: Our Sports Madness Puts Tens of Thousands of Child Athletes in Danger

This just in from The New York Times (June 8, 2009): "Strict rules regarding concussions can actually leave athletes at greater risk for injury."

And by "injury" the Times means "impaired neurological function," i.e., blackouts, dizziness, vomiting, blurred vision, paralysis, permanent brain damage, and death.

An international panel of neurologists, writing in the May 2009 issue of The British Journal of Sports Medicine on the subject of concussions incurred in a game or practice by young athletes, recommends that "any athlete 18 or younger who. . .sustain(s) a concussion. . .should never be allowed to return to the playing field the same day."

Maybe you think this is just common sense, a policy of minimum common sense.

Think again. Here's what a good number of American physicians, many of whom act as house doctors at high school games, argue: That such a policy of strictness about concussion will cause athletes to "hide their injuries from coaches and trainers even more than they are already known to do."

The sickening result: The deception "leav(es) [the child athlete] at risk for a second and more dangerous concussion."

Now you might be surprised by this news. You might think that coaches, trainers, parents and doctors across the country, informed of these facts, would immediately call for a policy that would err, if at all, on the side of an extreme conservatism with regard to concussed 14-year-olds.

How naive of you. That is the beauty of America. You see, in this country we have coaches, trainers and even parents who have a different opinion of concussion.

Many of them think that the dangers of concussion have been vastly overestimated. In fact, when I was growing up 50 years ago, concussions that didn't result in on-field unconsciousness were considered a topic of fun: "He got his bell rung."

And there's another side: Many football coaches regard concussions as badges of honor, tests of real manhood. But only if the player shakes it off, insists everything is OK and goes back in the game.

Otherwise, you're a wimp. In fact, if you stay on the sidelines, you should be playing soccer. Or cricket. In Britain.

Don't take my word for this. Listen to the American doctors who are nervously prowling the sidelines of football and soccer games. Here's what Dr. Bob Sallis, past president of the American College of Sports Medicine, said in the Times about the international panel's recommendations:

"More kids will be hurt seriously because of this [the stricter guidelines recommended by the international neurologists], either by players not admitting they might have gotten a concussion or coaches encouraging them not to be up front about their symptoms, whether subtly or overtly." (my italics)

Now you might make the mistake of thinking Dr. Sallis a moral coward, more interested in preserving his income, professional prestige and community standing than in defending the Hippocratic oath he swore to uphold and taking the war against sports injuries into the enemy's camp, giving no quarter to the fools, be they coaches or parents, who minimize concussion.

You would be wrong. Football frenzy dominates every aspect of American life. It's too big to contain, reform or chastise by frontal assault. Dr. Sallis sincerely means it when he implies that more young lives will be saved if we don't disturb the present arrangements, as dangerous and wretchedly inadequate as they are.

Are you skeptical about Dr. Sallis' sincerity?

I remind you of the local and national uproars that have repeated in this country every five or 10 years or so for decades. When it is periodically "discovered" (what everybody in the country knows) that ambitious, ruthless high school and college coaches have been denying water to severely dehydrated players in the midst of 100-degree August weather. In practice, for God's sake.

This is how football builds character: Teenage boys are publicly shamed and humiliated and punished -- turned into pariahs -- by win-at-all-costs coaches who call them "sissies" and, worse, for asking for a cup of water when they're on the point of unconsciousness or death.

Bad as that is, it's not the worst hypocrisy to result from our "character-building" sport. Even worse is that some doctors allow their professional judgment and their sacred oath to be compromised by sideline pressures from coaches and parents.

Or, as Dr. Robert Cantu, a Boston neurologist, says in the Times article, "So many bad decisions are made when trying to assess whether a player is symptomatic or not."

Translation of that last sentence: "When you're a doc on the sidelines, and the coach and his six assistants are screaming in your ear, 'DOC, YOU ------ -----! You're costing us the goddamn game! Look, the kid wants to go back in. Goddammit, send that goddamn kid back in the game NOW,' it's almost impossible to reach a sound decision about whether a young athlete's life is in danger."

And here is the result, according to Dr. Cantu:

"It's a clinical decision that's difficult or sometimes damn near impossible to be made on the sideline, and we aren't doing a very good job of it. Athletes, even when assessed by qualified people, seem to be returning to contests prematurely or when symptomatic -- an unacceptable number of cases." (my italics)

Translation: "We doctors cave in frighteningly often to screaming coaches, enraged parents and pleading players. And young people die or are crippled as a result. It's a scandal. Or it should be. And it would be, if there weren't a national conspiracy of silence about the true hidden costs of football."

And what are those costs, according to The New York Times? Well, apart from the sickening damage done to the consciences of well-meaning, worried doctors, 70,000 concussions in high school football alone in the 2007-2008 school year. There were 137,000 concussions in nine high school sports in that same year.

Those estimates are low, because they only include the reported concussions. The Times report says more concussions were almost certainly sustained but went unrecognized or were ignored.

I have a modest suggestion: Let's get rid of the whole disgusting, hypocritical mess. Let's junk high school professional football. And while we're at it, middle school professional football. And pee wee professional football.

That's right. Get rid of it all. Trash it.

Come to think of it, let's eliminate all organized professional high school and grade school sports, starting with basketball, football and baseball. Then we can turn to the colleges and get rid of that other national monument to flaunted hypocrisy and snickering cynical lying: intercollegiate athletics.

Let's start over, with voluntary intramural sports only.

I know what you'll say: "Are you crazy? Don't you know that Football as God is the way that upper-middle-class white men want it? You can't be so stupid as to not see that 'educated' white men still run this country. Why don't you suggest a reform that has a chance of being enacted into law?"

My reply: I recommend the most reasonable course of action. Can you suggest a better way of bringing our colleges, high schools and grade schools back to sanity and to a respect for learning? In this unhappy country, athletes get the obsequious deference that should be reserved for the best scholars alone.