OP-ED | Football Is Brutal. So Why Coach It?
Why coach football?
It’s a question I’ve asked myself more frequently this high school season — my 13th as an assistant coach — due to recent research outlining the dangers of the sport.
Football, in plain terms, is a brutal game that can cause serious injuries. A recent study at Boston University, for example, found that the potential for head impacts on kids under 12 who play tackle football “may double their risk of developing behavioral problems and triple their chances of suffering depression later in life.”
In another study, “researchers from Boston University School of Medicine and the VA Boston Healthcare System examined 202 brains that belonged to men who played football at all levels and were later donated for research,” reported The Washington Post. “They found CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] in 177 of them — 87 percent.”
Such statistics inspired Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman to urge Yale and Harvard to forego the 134th edition of “The Game,” the celebrated football matchup that took place last Saturday.
“How can two institutions rationalize a pastime so antithetical to the well-being of undergraduates and their own educational missions?” wrote Chapman. “It’s the equivalent of the Mayo Clinic operating a tobacco shop on-site.”
Hartford Courant sports columnist Jeff Jacobs asked Hamden native and Yale football alum Rich Diana about Chapman’s dramatic suggestion.
“I was asked to comment on CTE by some national publications,” said Diana, who played briefly in the NFL before attending Yale Medical School and becoming an orthopedic surgeon. “What I said was we don’t know as much about it. The study that came out showed everybody’s brain that was donated had CTE. That’s like going to a cardiologist’s office and finding out there is a lot of people there with heart disease.”
Diana continued: “You are preselecting for pathology. You can’t look at the people who have symptoms unless everybody has symptoms. You have to look at the number of people who play and the number of people who are affected before you start making judgments like removing football from the fabric of America.”
The fact is, football is not the only sport causing head injuries.
USA Today reported, “A new study shows that football barely has the second-highest per capita rate of concussions and traumatic brain injuries among all health setbacks in a specific high school sports. The top number? Girls’ soccer, by a significant amount.”
Specifically, the Northwestern University study found that “roughly 27 percent of all injuries suffered by girls’ soccer players are traumatic brain injuries,” as compared to 24 percent in football.
Meanwhile, researchers are working to make football safer. Newer helmets, for example, include an “outer layer [that] compresses to absorb shock and then rebounds.” The idea is to mitigate the exterior impact that causes the interior impact of the brain against the skull — the impetus for concussions.
In addition, coaches now teach safer techniques such as “rugby tackling.” Popularized by Seattle Seahawks Head Coach Pete Carroll, this method emphasizes tackling a ball carrier around his legs, thereby “taking the head out of the action.”
Connecticut coaches also must receive regular concussion training, per CIAC rules, and must adhere to strict time limits on full-contact practices every week.
Moreover, rule changes for high school games seek to minimize head injuries. Any use of the head to tackle or block is forbidden, as are hits against defenseless players who cannot see oncoming collisions.
The game, simply, is changing to address safety concerns. Inherent risks remain, but football is still a game worth playing for the 9,573 Connecticut high schoolers who participated last year.
In all my years of playing and coaching sports — including football, baseball, and ice hockey — I have found football to be the most personally demanding — and rewarding.
Football requires the perfect blend of individual talent and commitment to team. Football, despite the “dumb jock” stereotypes, demands intelligence and focus on the field. Football teaches kids to embrace challenges and adversity as normal occurrences.
Why coach football?
Because, like life, it comes with risks, rewards, jubilance, disappointment, and the constant opportunity to make individuals and those around them better. As a teacher who works daily with impressionable teenagers, I find those traits manifestly positive.
That’s why I coach football.
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