Concussions Begin Under Friday Night Lights

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The news that former Redskins running back Clinton Portis would be the lead plaintiff in the latest lawsuit against the NFL for concussion injuries warranted barely a blip in local football coverage. There was too much other intrigue, including whether or not Robert Griffin III and Mike Shanahan will ever make nice. Besides, a plethora of litigation involving 4,500 or so former players who allege they suffered long-term brain injuries is most likely years from resolution, and the season of the savage science is about to begin. So what if Portis says he sustained at least 10 concussions in nine NFL seasons (and who knows how many before that)? Get the sofa ready for the Eagles on Sept. 9! 

All across America teenaged boys are strapping on heavy plastic gear and helmets and, in the August heat, practicing and getting into shape for their upcoming high school football seasons. In Texas, Virginia, Florida, Ohio and a lot of other states, playing football is a veritable religion and rite of passage for young men. In communities big and small, football owns Friday nights.

A confession: I love watching high school football, and have done so for decades in the northern Virginia suburbs. Perhaps it is because I played it myself in the 1970s, but high school football provides an increasingly rare, true-grit, steadfast, flesh-and-blood counter to the fleeting and technology-driven swirl of modern-day life. With remote and virtual experiences increasingly overtaking our lives, Americans organize less and less in real human ways, making Friday night lights an even more important beacon in the civic life of our communities.  

But the game itself has become more elaborate and sophisticated and, I believe, dangerous, with year-around dedication to the sport and some kids displaying NFL-like skills and size at very early ages. Any coach, fan or official who has watched the game over the last few decades would have to admit that the physical contact has become more fierce and violent, the level of play more intense. Certainly the size of the players has changed dramatically. Left offensive tackles on many high school teams are routinely bigger than their pro counterparts were just a generation or two ago. And a 6-foot-6, 300-pounder bearing down on a mature man playing pro defensive back is one thing; doing so on a 16-year-old roughly half that size is quite another. 

When no one is hurt, there is nothing in sports like the pageantry that plays out on a Friday night on a high school field, with the smell of popcorn in brisk fall air, with high school bands strutting at halftime. But in recent seasons I have begun to feel more like an enabler than a spectator. With more attention on concussions and other life-altering injuries that often do not fully manifest until years later, with these children displaying the speed of and height and weight of professionals a generation or two ago, are we in danger of sanctioning a form of organized child abuse in the name of sport and tradition? 

My two 20-something sons were athletes but they did not play football, although they were not forbidden to do so. In hindsight I am glad they didn’t. Today, I would say no. Why? Because I played high school football and despite all the life lessons of camaraderie and physical exertion and team-building that my mediocre playing years provided, despite all the intense survivor-like friendships that enduring a football season creates, I’d trade it all now for a right knee that didn’t ache or two un-fused neck vertebra.

Even if they are not hurt so much as to be carried off the field – and I have seen a lot of that as a spectator - kids playing in today’s rougher game face potentially even more severe symptoms later in their lives. We try to protect them from the consequences of youthful over-exuberance on so many levels. Stricter rules on returning after concussions, more sideline presence of medical personnel - it’s commendable. But if we were honest with the threats and the consequences to the children playing it, the risk-vs.-reward equation of the entire sport merits a serious public discussion.

If it takes adults decades to develop enough hindsight to believe that there are better ways for a 16-year-old boy to bond with friends, build teamwork, and show courage – to pass all those mythical lines of manhood that football-crazy communities so clearly lay out for them - how can we expect a teenaged boy to make a rational decision, to adequately weigh all the risks of the “game” he is playing?  

Save for boxing and mixed martial arts, which are present in almost none of our high schools, no other sport has at its core the definition of success defined as physically, and violently, dominating an opponent, like football does. Basketball, baseball, soccer, swimming, even the very physical games of wrestling and lacrosse, are not played with an expectation that yet-developing bodies will collide at high speeds, over and over again. Yet all those sports can teach the same life lessons.

An athletically gifted boy of 16, wrapped in the cultural adoration that cascades around high school football, has neither the experience nor the motivation to take the more difficult path of just saying no. In fact, the opposite is true, the pressures to play are more intense than ever. Signing ceremonies for highly recruited high school football players, some of which are shown live on our sports networks, have become more culturally hyped than a Nobel Prize. Ratings services, booster clubs and pandering sportscasters add to the glitter and allure. The mega-business NFL has a huge stake in retaining its farm teams. Save for the NBA, NFL players are worshiped like in no other sport. Yet off in the distance stand the old players who have trouble remembering or walking or coping. Their day in court is coming.

Most important of all? In the end, it is only the still maturing boy that assumes the only risk that counts. Only his neck is – literally - on the line.

The Washington Post recently featured a story about a local high school where enrollment had declined because of the opening of other schools nearby. Parents and boosters were quoted as being worried that the numbers of football players had correspondingly declined, and that it would lead to more injuries because more of their boys would have to play both offense and defense. The booster club had even purchased a second golf cart to carry injured players off the field. That last sentence gave me the greatest pause of all; here were adults, preparing for the anticipated spike in the injury of children. Deep inside, what would any boy on that team feel after reading that? Would they be praised or criticized for walking away? 

Teenagers will always think they are invincible; they will take chances that later in life they will look back and shake their heads at. It is what teenagers do. And adults will always step in and warn them of the consequences of everything from driving too fast to posting too much on social networks – always with the “someday you will understand” signature every generation swears it will not inflict on the next.

Once upon a time, it was James Dean-cool to have a pack of cigarettes tucked into a T-shirt sleeve. When the consequences of smoking played out over generations, that iconic allure got dialed back for good. It’s time to shine Friday night lights on other things. 

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