Are you OK with sport’s risk of brain damage?

This may be sports heresy, but the question must be asked.

What would it take to convince you? What would it take to say, “My son or daughter is not going to play”?

The impact of concussions in sports is sometimes the elephant in the prep sports room.

It is there, often swept in the corner with rationalizations that the chance of serious injury is remote and with confidence in improved technique and technology.

That makes us feel better, safer, but that only goes so far.

The reality is that football is a sport where blows to the head are simply part of the game. Soccer, ice hockey and mixed martial arts also share this reality to a lesser extent and with lesser protection.

With the release of “Concussion” on Christmas Day, the Will Smith-starring, NFL-inspired major motion picture, the issue is dead center once again.

Or perhaps still. You see, the matter hasn’t gone away. As we learn more, we also understand better that the focus on concussions as an indicator of player safety is somewhat misdirected.

The reality is that contact sports are much safer than they were a decade ago because of better equipment and improved techniques. But safer does not mean safe, and parents are taking a calculated risk each time their child takes the field.

This column is not a lecture or an admonition that youth should not play contact sports. It is recognition, though, that an increasing body of research suggests a cause for reflection.

“Children should not play football or other contact sports until they reach a consenting age,” writes Dr. Bennet Omalu, the neuropathologist who first discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) after performing autopsies on several deceased NFL players in the 1980s.

“Over the past two decades it has become clear that repetitive blows to the head in high-impact contact sports like football, ice hockey, mixed martial arts and boxing place athletes at risk of permanent brain damage,” he wrote last month in a widely circulated New York Times op-ed. “Why, then, do we continue to intentionally expose our children to this risk?”

The problem is not necessarily the bell-ringing, stars-inducing hits that sideline a player. Rather, it is the cumulative impact of repeated hits — perhaps thousands in the case of football linemen — over the course of a young career.

Those can produce permanent brain damage at the cellular level that lead to long-term medical issues, including depression, memory loss, impaired intelligence and dementia, Omalu writes.

New research into the effects of repeated head impacts on high school football players has shown changes in brain chemistry and metabolism even in players who have not been diagnosed with concussions and suggest the brain may not fully heal during the offseason, a group of Purdue researchers found in a series of studies released this year.

“We are seeing damage not just to neurons, but also to the vasculature and glial cells in the brain,” said Eric Nauman, a professor of mechanical engineering, basic medical sciences and biomedical engineering. “I was particularly disturbed that when you get to the offseason — we are looking somewhere between two and five months after the season has ended — the majority of players are still showing that they had not fully recovered.”

Findings suggest the cumulative effects of injuries pose potential health dangers for players not diagnosed with concussions, based on five years of study centering on the Lafayette Jeff football program.

The Purdue study, funded with your tax dollars through the Indiana Department of Health, reports that sub-concussive blows — hits that may not even be noticed by outward symptoms — can produce biochemical changes and potentially lead to neurological problems and brain chemistry changes.

Purdue’s research is being used to help develop better helmets and techniques. The irony of that, though, is that the professed better equipment and techniques of today are not preventing significant changes in brain activity for this generation of prep athletes.

So, maybe you go will go see the film this holiday season and heed Omalu’s advice. Maybe you will simply dismiss the issue as not relevant to your son or daughter at this point. Maybe you will place trust in the promise of better technology and technique.

Clearly, the choice is yours, and no one should tell you differently.

No matter your reaction, though, the reality remains. Somewhere, somehow, many parents must answer the question: What would it take to say, “My son or daughter is not going to play.”

At a glance

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Want to know more about head trauma and youth sports? Check out these sites:

–Purdue Neurotrauma Group

–Concussion Neuroimaging Consortium

–USA Football

–Center for Disease Control

–PBS Frontline

Author photo
Bob Johnson is a sports correspondent for the Daily Journal.