Political Animal


October 28, 2012 11:06 AM The Scourge of High School Concussions

By Simon van Zuylen-Wood

While we’re on the topic of football, some news from the darker side of the sport. A brand new survey out of Massachusetts, prompted by a 2010 state law, found that 3,000 youth athletes from 164 schools suffered concussions last year. (A revelation that comes on the heels of a five-concussion peewee football game in central Mass.) Over 500 schools didn’t respond to the survey. Scaled-up, this study implies 600,000 youth concussions occur yearly in the US, about double the 300,000 commonly estimated.

Certain schools have tried to ramp up protections against concussions by employing more personal trainers and cutting back on practice time. 39 states have passed laws protecting kids from concussion, most of them with three stipulations: parents must sign a concussion-information form before their kids play sports, students must be removed from play if it seems they have a concussion, and those who do sustain concussions must get medical clearance before they can return to the playing field.

But at least in football, none of that will matter much. As Jonah Lehrer rightly noted in (what appears to be a well-sourced and plagiarism-free) article on high school concussions, there’s almost nothing we can do to prevent brain injury in football, short of say, eliminating tackling. The only shield we have against concussions, the helmet, doesn’t actually protect the brain.

If the head isn’t shielded from the strongest physical impacts — and this is best done with soft, pliable materials — then it can break and bleed. But the very act of protecting players from those severe collisions means that the head will bounce around the cushioned helmet, thus allowing the brain to move within its bony cage.

This is, of course, a problem in the professional ranks as well, but it’s worse for high school kids. Not only are their brain cells still developing, but 99 percent of them don’t have a professional future in the sport, making their efforts especially worthless. Recently, as Lehrer noted, a BU neuropathologist found the earliest-ever recorded evidence of irreversible CTE—a brain disease similar to Alzheimer’s—in the brain of a deceased 18 year-old who suffered multiple concussions playing high-school football.

We’d like to think that improved regulation or technological breakthroughs (Ridell makes an ‘anti-concussion’ helmet said to reduce concussion incidence by 2.6%) can help us muddle through. But the common laws governing youth head trauma only really kick in after the first concussion occurs, and besides, they leave too much discretion to coaches and kids, meaning injuries will inevitably be ignored and underreported. It sounds drastic, but either youth football has to disband voluntarily, or “the lawyers will do it” for them, as one New Hampshire doctor recently put it. If that signals an eventual end to professional football, so be it.

Update: Reader Russell Sadler points me to this eloquent George Will column that draws the same conclusion as mine, though with a focus on the professional game, and its toll.

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a writer for Philadelphia Magazine.


  • c u n d gulag on October 28, 2012 11:25 AM:

    Four those of u who wondered y I am what I am, it wasn't that my Mom and Dad dropped me on my hed, it's concotusions frum playin' football that praboblee best esplains the dain bramage that u suspect I sufferaged from.

    I wuz a Defensive Lineman.

  • Steve P on October 28, 2012 11:28 AM:

    Are there comparable stats for Rugby? Because the extra-testosterone crowd could use that for a safe outlet. Rugby players are proverbially crazy, and unpadded--the pads cause the injuries--the best of both worlds.

    And then you can let the football dads go on and play instead of the kids; they're already brain damaged.

  • charlie don't surf on October 28, 2012 11:30 AM:

    Eliminating tackling isn't even going to fix the problem. In junior high school gym class, I got knocked out and got a concussion playing flag football.

  • Anonymous on October 28, 2012 11:36 AM:

    Kids have concussions. They fall out of trees. They get into bicycle accidents, and God knows, skateboards and roller blades are delivery systems for serious falls. They bounce their heads on ice. They get into fights. They bump heads when trying to head a ball - and they head balls in soccer. Some kids play football, where they will get bumped around more than once. In short, there is no realistic way to prevent concussions. What seems to me to be a more fruitful avenue for protecting kids is better systems for detecting and dealing with concussions when they happen. There are a number of components of that, but the most important is probably a better system for delivering health care to kids.

  • martin on October 28, 2012 11:47 AM:

    but either youth football has to disband voluntarily, or “the lawyers will do it” for them

    Maybe in some pussy state like New Hampshire, but here in Alabama where football IS the state religion, the lawyers will be as successful at getting football out of school as they are at getting prayer out. No nanny-state,science belivin, big guvment gonna tell us we can't have our Friday Night Lights (not to mention Thursday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday). Roll Eagle!

    And I swear to go, my Captch is mvisem neurons.

  • TCinLA on October 28, 2012 11:51 AM:

    Fortunately, I was able to figure out after one season of playing kid football that it is the single Dumbest Sport Ever. Living a football-free life (including not watching the stupidity, not reading about the stupidity, not talking about the stupidity) makes the day great.

    Why does it not surprise me that the stupidest country ever would invent the dumbest game ever? All the bad of the Romans and the Gladiators with none of the good (whatever that was).

  • Russell Sadler on October 28, 2012 11:58 AM:

    I believe George Will came to the same conclusion you did, Simon, in a recent column.

  • schtick on October 28, 2012 1:07 PM:

    This country is becoming all sports at any cost. Sports figures get paid millions, commit crimes, get into drunken brawls, and in some cases commit murder, but the general public thinks it's ok because they play professional sports.
    I had some of my co-workers tell me OJ would be found innocent, not because he was, but because he played football. They cheered at the announcement he was found innocent.
    When schools cut budgets, they don't cut sports or cut out money to build new football fields or new track fields, they cut band, art, or even teachers.
    The mentality of sports is that most parents push their kids in sports and kids that get hurt do so because they don't know how to play the game. Besides, it always happens to some other kid, not theirs. Until it does. Then they want to sue.

  • Tom Dibble on October 28, 2012 1:28 PM:

    In general, I agree with both the article and its conclusions. However, the description of the helmet's role in preventing both external trauma and concussion, quoted above, is just bad science.

    The role of the cushioning of the helmet is to provide a controlled deceleration of the head, specifically of the brain. That is why there is cushioning, not to make the head more "comfortable", but to keep the head from decelerating instantly and thus absorbing the full force of the impact.

    What causes concussion is the force acting against (depending on the specific location of the concussion) the skull or spine, resulting in the soft tissue of the brain (and its surroundings) sustaining injury or - in severe cases - bruising (when the article stated that it "is not a bruise" I had to laugh; you're lucky when it doesn't involve bruising, as that is a more serious condition than a concussion!). The padding in a helmet acts like shocks in a car - a vital aid in reducing "sudden" movements (high deceleration/acceleration). However, as you probably have noticed, going 60mph over 20mph speed bumps your shocks aren't going to be able to save you from catastrophic damage, and neither can the helmet.

    No, the problem with helmet design is simple physics. If Body X needs to go from Speed S0 to Speed S1 on impact, and there is distance Y to accomplish that, there is a minimal deceleration which can occur to achieve that. And, as it turns out, that minimal deceleration is above what the brain's casing can handle. So, that's the "optimal" helmet, one which still allows for concussions in a large number of situations. The compromises from even that imperfect ideal come in when you also need to make sure that Elbow E and Knee K don't dramatically shorten Distance Y by pushing through the cushioning. That's why you need the hard exterior which matches the (relatively) soft interior.

    If Lois Lane falls off a building and achieves terminal velocity, once she's a couple feet off the ground there isn't enough distance for her to decelerate safely. No matter if it's the cold hard ground or Superman's arms, she's going to decelerate far more rapidly than a human body can handle. When your brain is heading at great speed towards an effective brick wall and it's four inches away, there's no way to decelerate it safely. It will impact, and the force of that impact will initiate the cascade of failures known as a concussion.

    That's why helmets (unless they get far bulkier) are not able to save the brain from this routine and voluntary trauma. The primary reason is not the compromise between hard exterior and soft interior; the primary reason is simple unbending physics.

  • Homer on October 28, 2012 1:35 PM:

    When I was in little league football, the most dreaded exercise was when the team had to line up in opposing lines. Then, one by one, we had to run at each other at full speed and hit each other head first. Like rams battling each other. It was supposed to toughen us up, make us not afraid to hit someone. (Which was stupid, we volunteered to play football because we liked to run into other kids.)Its amazing no one ended up with a broken neck.

  • buddy66 on October 28, 2012 4:22 PM:

    Thank you, Tom Dibble.

    As one of the 99% that did not go on to play professional football, I can only thank my lack of talent; given the chance, I sure as hell would have done so. Testosterone and tradition would have won out.

    Sometimes the young must be protected against themselves.

  • mfw13 on October 28, 2012 10:34 PM:

    A major culprit is poor tackling technique. Because wearing a helmet makes players think their head is protected, they lower their shoulders and lead with their head, instead of tackling properly with their arms.

    Maybe because they do not wear helmets, rugby players learn how to tackle properly. Football players do not, and get concussions as a result.

  • Crissa on October 28, 2012 11:50 PM:

    I'm gonna hafta go with the 'concussions are gonna happen' crowd. I've never played football or been knocked down in soccer, but I had a concussion as a kid. I'd fallen out of trees, off the ground, off bikes... What, you're going to pad the world?

    Of course, there is something to be said about learning the proper ways to do things to not get concussions.

  • Lex on October 29, 2012 5:11 PM:

    My 14-year-old daughter sustained a concussion two Sundays ago when she was hit in the head with a kicked soccer ball. Not even another girl's foot, just the ball. She has had a CT scan and MRI, and the concussion is all the damage there was, thank God. But eight days later, she still can't read, watch TV, listen to music or text on her phone without getting a headache.

    We can't eliminate concussions entirely, but 600,000 a year (or even 300,000) is a helluva lot, and we CAN do better than that.