Head trauma: Worth the risk?

Football season is underway once again. The boys are hitting the field and hitting each other as usual. But, there is change in the air. More and more, brain specialists are sounding the alarm about something called chronic traumatic encephalopathy or, more familiarly, CTE.

And, while the focus in recent years has already been placed on concussions and making sure recovery is sufficient before a player returns to action, the new research shows something even more disconcerting for parents of gridders: concussions may not even be necessary for brain damage to occur.

Back in my day, coaches were oblivious to the possibility that damage could occur from a hit on the playing field. Boys were told to “shake it off” if they’d had “their bell rung.” As soon as the player could see straight, he was sent back out to be smacked again. We just didn’t know any better.

These days, all athletes are required by the Kansas High School Activities Association to watch a video about the dangers of head injuries.

My girls’ tennis team members and I chuckled about what could lead team members to suffer a concussion out on the courts (perhaps doubles team members crashing going for a ball or accidently butting heads when they tried to high five each other?). But, I showed the video nonetheless.

There is little question about the legitimacy of the claim that professional football has been known to cause CTE. In 2015, the NFL paid a $1 billion to be split among 5,000 retired players who claimed the league hid the risk of concussions.

The league did not publicly acknowledge the link between football and CTE, however, until May 2016. Former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland abruptly retired at the age of 24 due to brain injury concerns in 2015. Several more walked away in the year that followed.

“What about college players?” you ask.

A cbssports.com report in 2014 concluded that “college football players are three times more likely than the general public to have symptoms related to chronic traumatic encephalopathy.” Those boys are big hitters, so it may make sense that they are also in big danger.

More of a concern to parents, perhaps, is a report from pbs.org that “high school football players are nearly twice as likely as college players” to sustain a concussion, though that report said the connection between CTE and long-term damage was inconclusive.

For former NFL players, the evidence is inclusive enough for them to declare their offspring would be benched.

“If I had a son today, and I would say this to all our audience and our viewers out there, I would not let him play football,” said Terry Bradshaw in 2012.

Troy Aikman, legendary Dallas quarterback, said, “If I had a 10-year-old boy, I don’t know that I’d be real inclined to encourage him to go play football, in light of what we are learning from head injury.”

Before my email account fills up with accusations that I hate football, let me say that is not the case. In fact, you will find me Friday nights announcing local home games. I certainly support the athletes who take to the gridiron each week.

Unlike some who examined the evidence, I am not calling for an end to the sport as we know it. But, parents and the athletes in their families definitely need to sit down and talk about the risks and how it is that all suspected concussions be reported. Some research shows that up to 80 percent of head injuries are not.

Research from the CTE Center at the Boston Univer­sity School of Medicine concludes that players can receive damage to their brains with “concussions that cause symptoms and subconcussive hits to the head that cause no symptoms. At this time, the number or type of hits to the head needed to trigger degenerative changes of the brain is unknown.”

The brain can slosh around in the skull even when a direct hit is not experienced. A car accident or even falling down on ice can lead to brain damage. And, it is true that not everyone with a history of repeated brain trauma develops the disease, the center says. It is likely that other factors, such as genetics, may play a role.

Immediate CTE symptoms include blurred or double vision, seeing stars, sensitivity to light or noise, headache, dizziness or balance problems, nausea, vomiting, trouble sleeping, fatigue, confusion, difficulty remembering, difficulty concentrating or loss of consciousness.

The jury is still out on all the long-term effects. They have included memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depres­sion, suicide, Parkinson’s disease and eventually progressive dementia.

These symptoms often begin years, or even decades, after the last brain trauma or end of athletic involvement. The examination of athletes’ brains following premature deaths have indeed shown damage from repeated injury.

The effects of head trauma in other sports are also being investigated. They include the so-called extreme sports such as mountain biking, skateboarding, skiing and snowboarding. KSHSAA this fall reported it has seen a spike in concussions from soccer. Even basketball is tallying its share of head injuries.

So, the message here is the same one my tennis players received in the early days of practice this fall: If you hurt your head, report it. And, coaches need to take that report seriously.

As more information becomes available on exactly how severe the risks of permanent damage are, we will all need to weigh the benefits of contact sports against the dangers they may present to our young people.

Bob Woelk teaches English and journalism at Hillsboro Middle/High School.