Tate: It's on the brain
It's better, but concussions are real problem in football
— Baseball pitchers routinely undergo Tommy John arm surgery and often return stronger than ever.
— Hockey players undergo more than their share of ACL surgeries (in the U.S. alone, up to 75,000 people annually endure this knee repair) but nearly 100 percent get back on the ice.
— Football players inevitably receive head blows that can lead to brain trauma and concussions. It is a different recovery process. Some wind up with degenerative brain disease, a fact emphasized by more than 3,000 plaintiffs bringing a class-action lawsuit against the NFL.
Don't misunderstand. Football is too deeply ingrained in the U.S. to go the way of boxing. Concussions or not, the athletes are as addicted as the fans.
You may have read George Will, or seen him with George Stephanopoulos or on "Mike and Mike in the Morning," reciting the numbers ... how today's 300-pounders, already challenging life expectancy with their bulk, have become so strong and fast that the body can't withstand collisions involving this level of kinetic energy.
Referring to the NFL, Will called football "a three-hour adrenaline and testosterone bath. For all its occasional elegance and beauty, it is basically violence for, among other purposes, inflicting intimidating pain."
That's true and it will continue. Nothing is going to derail either the fans' pleasure or the athletes' daring determination. Football is here to stay.
But changes are in the offing. More parents will steer their sons away from Pop Warner tryouts. Turnout at the high school level will inevitably diminish the collegiate feeder system. We'll see a change in the makeup of squads.
That's my long-range projection. But it's not happening right now. You shouldn't be misled by Hoopeston taking a year off from varsity play, or the meager turnout (in the 20s) at Schlarman. These schools have other problems.
The traditional winners at Unity, St. Joseph-Ogden and Tuscola roll right along. Champaign Central welcomed more than 120 prospects in four classes. Centennial's 16-year coach, Mike McDonnell, reported 111, calling this normal, and emphasizing that he'll continue to implement extreme safety measures.
"It is costly but we pay to have a certified trainer from Carle at not only our games but at practices where contact is involved," McDonnell said. "We take no chances. Every player is tested."
What's up, doc?
The medical profession is becoming an ever-increasing voice in this business.
John Storsved, assistant professor at Eastern Illinois, reminds that "school boards are obligated to make parents aware of the dangers." If an athlete is thought to sustain a concussion, "he must be evaluated by a medical doctor or a certified athletic trainer."
Said Storsved: "My son is a freshman at Central. I am one of the parents obliged to read the concussion policy. All high school athletes receive a concussion baseline test similar to what we see at the university."
Storsved reported that UI professor Steve Broglio made a four-year study at Unity by tracking physical contact via an impact telemetry system featuring six small censors inside 35 helmets. A wireless system brought the signal to his laptop. One revelation was that athletes took more frequent hits in practice than in the games.
"Helmets are no guarantees of safety," Storsved said, "and particularly if they are not well fitted. That's one of the concerns at the lower levels."
In Rantoul, UI coach Tim Beckman is aware, saying: "Safety is more important than ever in football. We try to teach the proper techniques of blocking and tackling, and we ask the players, if they feel something is happening, tell us."
New UI trainer Scott Brooks arrived from Miami (Fla.) to handle this demanding role.
"Education is the single most important preventive factor, and the doctor's exam is crucial," said Brooks, who heads a quartet of UI football trainers. Their job is to be on the lookout for signs of a concussion.
"Everyone is becoming proactive," Brooks said. "The new coaching staff went through informative meetings with the athletic training staff in the spring. The players signed acknowledgment forms before camp.
"We do an ImPACT neurocognitive test that runs between 20 and 35 minutes, depending on the individual, as part of the initial physical exam. That determines memory and reactive time and, if a player has a problem on the field, we can test against that baseline.
"We also use the Bess test (it tests static postural stability) in which players stand with eyes open or closed, and we count the sways forward and backward on a single leg. We can judge balance with this test, and it serves as another baseline.
"Quite simply, if we see signs or symptoms, or we suspect anything, we hold them out. Then it's up to the team doctors."
Al Martindale was trainer for UI football for 20 years before moving to basketball in 2002.
Given the choice today, he'd probably play football again, but he would advise his son not to.
"That came up 10 years ago," he said. "Knowing what I know now, I would not favor him playing. It's not only football. Look at soccer. Over time, he had two or three concussions. This goes back to collisions and also heading the ball. At a young age, their brain is not fully developed in their skull, so there's more space to rattle around. Personally, I think the problem is at the younger levels. The equipment and the helmets may not be perfect at the pee-wee or junior high level. And I recall, back in the '70s, parents telling their kids to 'get back in there' even though they were dizzy. By the time they reach the college level, they may already have had five or six concussions, and each one can make it worse, particularly if he keeps playing. And too often, like Junior Seau, they don't want to tell.
"In these August practices, it is sometimes hard to understand what's happening. It's 90 to 100 degrees on the field, and the players may be dehydrated and become light-headed or get a headache. Maybe it's just from wearing a helmet that they're not used to.
"I dealt with this problem with some of our coaches. It was like, 'You don't know. You're not a doctor.' And my thought was, 'Are you a doctor?'
"All reasonable precautions are being taken. The players sign consent forms. They're educated not to lead with their head. ... In the profession, there are many groups studying brain injuries. It will be interesting to see where it goes."
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.