In a widely unnoticed story in the news today, it was reported that a leading forensic pathologist at the University of Pittsburgh has determined that severe brain damage, brought on or exacerbated by multiple concussions during his playing days, led to the depression that caused former Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters to kill himself.
I hadn't even noticed the story until my father sent it on to me, and fear that something that could literally affect the lives of millions of American kids will pass silently.
According to Dr. Bennett Omalu, brain tissue he studied from Waters showed that the NFL great had a brain consistent with that of an 85 year old man at the time of his death. Waters was just 44 when he shot himself in the head a few months ago. Dr. Omalu says the damage to Waters' brain was similar to two other NFL players who suffered severe depression - Mike Webster, who became homeless and cognitively impaired before his death, and Terry Long, who, like Waters, took his own life.
To be sure, not every football player who gets concussions will end up severely depressed and/or attempt to take his own life. But, this demonstrates the severity of the brain trauma coaches and medical staff downplay, if the players don't keep it to themselves, which is often the case.
Unfortunately, because the degree of trauma to the brain is impossible to diagnose in the same way a broken leg is during a game, the only way to combat this problem is education. Education to players that they have to speak up, and education to coaches that they are not to make an example out of anyone for sitting out a game with head trauma.
It took the death of Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Corey Stringer a few years back to finally get coaches, players and staff to recognize the importance of hydration, and learn that being dehydrated wasn't a sign of weakness to be hidden. Hopefully, the one bright spot to come out of the senseless death of Andre Waters will be a reexamination of how head trauma is treated in pro football, and all levels below it.
Indeed, there are 40,000 public high schools in America now, tens of thousands of private schools, middle schools that have football teams, and pee wee leagues, not to mention the hundreds of college teams. It's safe to assume there are about 100,000 football teams operating in America right now, each with the ability to field one different person to each starting position, on average. Therefore, it's also safe to assume there at least 2.2 million kids in America that play football at one level or another.
Educating all of these kids, and the ones who come after them, about the serious repercussions that come from brain injuries must begin now, and must begin with you. If you have a child who plays football, or wants to play, make sure they know that if they ever feel their head isn't right, that they stop playing until they can see a doctor. Additionally, send the article linked above to your local school's coach, as well as the principle and the school board. Attach a letter asking if they have an education program in place to teach kids in sports about the dangers of concussions, and if not, that you would like petition to see one installed. Do the same if there's a pee wee league operating in your town.
Helping these kids avoid a fate like Waters, Webster, Long, etc. will take a change in culture - one stressing that it takes real toughness to admit that you just cannot play because of a non-visible injury. That will only come if children are taught by their coaches from an early age that no game is ever as important as their future and their life.