Like Chris Borland, Risk Not Worth Reward For Millions of Youth Players

BY BRIAN PATRICK HARMON

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When it comes to great sports moments, Hail Mary touchdowns can’t touch this. Walk-off home runs? Forget it. Even a March Madness buzzer-beater dulls in comparison.

Chris Borland’s retirement from the NFL blows them all away.

At 24, the San Francisco 49ers linebacker and budding superstar shocked his team and the league this week by retiring after his rookie season. Borland told ESPN’sOutside the Lines he is leaving the game to hopefully avoid the adverse health effects of repetitive head trauma.

Simply put, Borland has had his brain addled enough.

In looking out for himself, Borland has done a huge favor for the millions of youth and high school players banging their heads day in and day out, every fall across America. Perhaps, his retirement will tip the scales of awareness in favor of banning tackle football to children under 14 and away from letting the greedy NFL and NCAA continue to feast on the free minor league system that is youth football.

Research is increasingly showing that NFL players — 30 percent of whom will develop debilitating brain conditions according to a new study — do not have a monopoly on gridiron-related brain damage. Former pros who started playing tackle football before age 12 were significantly more likely to suffer with thinking and memory problems as adults, according to a Boston University study released in January.

Furthermore, scientists have discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma — in deceased high school and college football players. Researchers at Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy say there is reason to believe CTE can begin when a child is very young.

Like virtually every NFL player, Borland’s success was built on the backs — and shaken brains — of hundreds of children, who didn’t measure up talent wise to Borland but whose participation was necessary for Borland to ply his trade as a hard-hitting, nose-on-the-ball wrecking machine.

To become great — and great he was in 2014, racking up more tackles per snap than any other player in the NFL — Borland needed high school teammates willing to be on the receiving end of his helmet-to-helmet strikes during practice and to “go to war” with him on game day.

And without opponents and organized leagues, Borland would not have had a stage to secure a football scholarship from Wisconsin and similar offers from other schools.

Very few players survive the football funnel through youth, high school and college to have the opportunity to play professionally on Sundays. But that doesn’t mean they all haven’t paid a dear price.

Walking away from millions of dollars, stardom and a dream job is nothing short of courageous. I consider Borland a hero.

Yet while his prudent decision is an effort to secure a healthy brain, there’s no guarantee that significant damage hasn’t already occurred deep inside Borland’s young skull.

Fortunately, Borland’s parents kept him out of football until he enrolled at Archbishop Alter High School in Kettering, Ohio. As a youth, Borland developed his athletic prowess playing what so many gorilla-minded youth football coaches label as “wussy” sports: tennis, soccer and baseball.

In a campaign funded by the NFL, USA Football’s “Heads Up Football” initiative aims to make football “better and safer” through concussion awareness, proper equipment fitting and heads up tackling.

There are two problems with this emphasis on heads up tackling. One is that it’s nothing new. Youth coaches have taught this for decades. Nowadays though, I suppose some dads just don’t cheer as hard for those loud ear-piercing cracks and pops caused by helmet-on-helmet contact.

The second issue I have with relying too much on heads up tackling lessons is that football is impossible to choreograph. At full speed and in the chaos that is football, heads duck and brains collide.

I suppose I suffer from buyer’s remorse when it comes to the game. I played youth, high school and college football and what I have to show for it are two herniated discs, a tendency to imagine myself clothesline tackling people who irk me and a nagging concern that my forgetfulness is connected to head trauma.

I also know that signing my son up to play tackle football a month before he entered kindergarten was foolish. How on Earth can a 5-year-old — or a child of any age up to 16 — make an informed decision to play football?

My son ended up playing 10 seasons — a decade’s worth of football. Every day, I hope the pounding he took and gave as a linebacker and fullback won’t affect his brain when he’s 20, 30 or at some point after I’m not around to witness it.

Chris Borland’s announcement can help spark an epiphany that leads to a ban on tackle football for children under 14 and removal of the sport from high school. Such progress will take litigation, legislation and perhaps educators and taxpayers asking, “What is the educational value of a sport that makes its participants less intelligent?”

Feature photo credit: Steve Schar

@theharmonizer

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We Can’t Ignore Kids and Concussions

BY BRIAN PATRICK HARMON

cropped-bph.jpgA few weeks ago, my dad apologized for all the smoking he did in the house back when I was a kid.

“We just didn’t realize,” he said as we watched the little girl on the anti-smoking commercial cough into a room thick with secondhand smoke.

I’ve heard that refrain many times through the years. From my parents. From my aunts. From a ton of reformed smokers. That excuse — the lack of awareness of the dangers of secondhand smoke — has always rung hollow with me. As if my bloodshot eyes and hacking cough weren’t strong enough hints that breathing that stuff in was detrimental.

These days, I am beginning to seriously ponder if I will someday make a similar mea culpa to my son. Dan is 12 and has already played eight seasons of tackle football. He was an aggressive little guy, loved roughhousing, jumping around and knocking into stuff, so as he was heading into kindergarten — and a few months shy of turning 5 — I signed him up for peewee football.

In terms of catching, running and throwing, Danny has done some amazing things playing football. But he is particularly noted for his “pancake” blocks and bone-crushing tackles, the type of hitting that led to such scary nicknames as “Terminator” and “Assassin” from his coaches. My son’s ego feeds off the attention he receives for his warrior mentality.

Junior Seau was a force on the grid iron. Credit: Flickr

Junior Seau was a force on the grid iron.
Credit: Flickr

I imagine Junior Seau experienced the same motivation while growing up menacing whoever crossed his path on the football field. Seau was the warrior’s warrior. The fire in his eyes alone was enough to lead his teammates into battle. In a game dependent on violence for fan interest, Seau was as fierce as they come. He hit — and was hit — for 20 seasons as an NFL linebacker.

Seau’s suicide last week should be a wake-up call for any father who pressures his son to play football and for any coach who pressures his players to play with a head injury. Seau shot himself in the heart. Like fellow NFL great Dave Duerson, who similarly killed himself in 2011, Seau — who suffered multiple concussions playing football — clearly wanted researchers to study his brain for trauma. It’s been documented that Seau had been suffering from depression in recent years. It would be irresponsible not to suggest that his depression was influenced by repeated blows to the head.

Among the institutions in line to study Seau’s brain is Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, the research center that found Duerson, a longtime Chicago Bears safety, suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — brain damage — due to repeated hits to his head. CTE is not exclusive to NFL players. Boston University researchers found CTE in the brain of an 18-year-old athlete who had sustained multiple concussions.

This memorial to Junior Seau shows the outpouring  of love and support that came in wake of the linebacker's 2012 suicide. He donated his brain to science.  Credit: Tejas Califas

This memorial to Junior Seau shows the outpouring of love and support that came in wake of the linebacker’s 2012 suicide. He donated his brain to science.
Credit: Tejas Califas

Pain tolerance is among the core values of football. It’s a game where you’re rewarded for how much you can tolerate. Players — not just those getting paid or on scholarship — will go through anything to stay on the field.

I am certain that I played the last game of my junior season of college football with a concussion I had suffered days earlier during practice. My motivation: I wasn’t going to jeopardize my starting position by letting a headache and some dizziness keep me out of the game.

Awareness of the dangers of head injuries has increased on the youth football level. But there is still precious little medical oversight at practices and games.

Youth leagues need a trainer on-site to evaluate head and other injuries — to determine if it’s safe for a child to continue playing. It is worth the increase in registration fees.

Furthermore, leagues, coaches and parents should limit the amount of full-contact football a child plays during the year. Too many kids on Long Island play tackle football eight months a year.

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Youth football leagues across the country fall woefully short in monitoring head injuries. Photo from Flickr

Ridiculously, coaches begin full equipment practices for the fall season in July. Then, when the fall season ends in November, the indoor football season begins in December with teams registering to compete in for-profit youth leagues that schedule playoff games deep into February.

Hundreds of retired players — including Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett — are suing the NFL for negligence, accusing the league of deception and denial in failing to properly inform players of the link between head injuries and long-term cognitive brain damage.

If players have a solid case against the NFL, then how strong of a case would former youth and high school players have against their leagues, or worse, their dads?

I recall hearing about the first case of ailing smokers suing Big Tobacco in the 1990s and thinking that the smokers had no case, that they should hold themselves accountable for willingly embracing the risks of smoking cigarettes. How completely wrong I was.

Is it so far-fetched to imagine non-NFL players suing the league for selling a product that influenced them to make poor health decisions on the playing field?

Originally published in the Riverhead News-Review on May 12, 2012.