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Greater Awareness of Traumatic Brain Injuries in Sports Means Better Reporting

But my money says that in 30 years, we will look back at this era and wonder why we let it go on as long as we did.

There were nearly 100,000 more reported traumatic brain injuries in youth sports in 2009 than 2001, a 60 percent increase, according to a report released Thursday by the Center for Disease Control.

The good news is our games may not really be more dangerous.

“We believe that one reason for the increase in emergency department visits among children and adolescents may be a result of the growing awareness among parents and coaches, and the public as a whole, about the need for individuals with a suspected TBI to be seen by a health care professional,” Dr. Linda C. Degutis, the director of the CDC′s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, said.

The bad news is there is increasing medical evidence suggesting even a single traumatic brain injury, such as a concussion, can induce long-term changes in the brain similar to those found in people with neurodegenerative disease, according to a study by doctors at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Glasgow and Southern General Hospital in Glasgow, Scotland.

Now, this is not the same thing as saying that a single concussion leads to Alzheimer’s, but it does signal the need for proper diagnoses and treatment. Here in Connecticut we are lucky. The state legislature was among the first states to mandate high school coaches undergo training to recognize possible concussions and establish a protocol for treatment. No doubt some high school athletic departments considered this an unfunded mandate but it’s a necessary one. The legislature was negligent in only one regard. The law should have imposed the same mandate on AAU and travel team coaches because such teams take up a larger space in the athletic education of our youth.

So far, 33 other states have joined Connecticut in passing similar bills but again, most of them ignore AAU and travel teams. This is a mistake. The message should be that if you work with kids you need to know how to take care of them.

Meanwhile, 75 former NFL players are suing the league claiming it withheld information about the harmful effects of concussions. The suit, reported first by TMZ, was brought by a group that includes former Giants running back Rodeny Hampton and Dolphins receiver Mark Duper and alleges that the NFL sponsored a study in 1994 that concluded there was no danger from cumulative head injuries.

There is no question the league, which seems to be an unstoppable ratings machine, envisions head injuries as the one issue which clouds its otherwise bright, blue sky. There is good reason for this. If there ever comes a day when doctors can state, with a medical certainty, that playing football increases the chances of, say, dementia by a significant percentage, what parent is going to let their child take up the game?

The medical evidence today is scattered. The evidence tomorrow may be overwhelming.

This is why the NFL has done what it can to cut down on violent hits to the head and have been especially protective of players who touch the ball and, therefore, may be known by the public. Much less attention has been paid to the impact of repetitive, but non-traumatic, blows absorbed by the league’s faceless linemen on each and every play, though medical studies are beginning to ascertain the damage such contact can do.

All of this should give parent’s pause.

On the one hand, we do a disservice to our children when we try to wrap them in bubble wrap when we send them out to play. Skinned knees and sprained ankles are the price of active, healthy children.

But my money says that in 30 years, we will look back at this era and wonder why we let it go on as long as we did. No doubt football holds a central place in our sporting culture. Our sporting culture needs to get over it.

To change football, to remove the violence, is to make it something different from what it is. Already, if you listen to sports talk radio, you can hear the rumblings of those who say the game is too pass happy, too much of a finesse game. These are fans that prefer the ground and pound style of football. They want football that comes wrapped in the big hits that kill the brains of the men who deliver them.

There is money and machismo involved and so there will be resistance to change but change will happen eventually. Either someone will figure out how to make the game safer or parents will stop letting their kids play.

Then one day the CDC will report fewer traumatic brain injuries and you won’t have to go looking for the good news.

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