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Football Fri May 15 2015

Youth Football has a Concussion Problem

the mashBy Katie Karmin & Charlie Connelly

From the first days of peewee ball to the stadium lights of the high school field, it's abundantly clear that physical harm is a reality of football. For years, it was just "the norm" for adolescents and young adults to break a bone or suffer a concussion here and there. If a young player was injured, odds were they had been playing their hardest out on the field, and that was glorified.

Today, much of America's youth has been born into the luxury of protection. From more effective airbags to an actual bomb detection shield in Israel, safety has never been as advanced as it is today. But within that world, football is taking new hits for the harm it poses to players' health.

"I think that especially at younger ages even before high school, parents do worry about the physical and the violent aspect of the game and how it may affect their child, mostly regarding possible injuries they could suffer," said Riverside Brookfield High School senior Louis Grigoletti, who committed to playing for Central Michigan next year. "Concussions are picking up steam in terms of being a worry of parents and players alike, so I'm sure these worries do keep kids from getting opportunities to play the game."

The facts surrounding football injuries are frightening. Many former NFL stars have been diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative condition caused by constant head trauma that can lead to depression and dementia. A 2014 Boston University study examined the brains of 79 deceased NFL players and found evidence of CTE in 76 of those brains. When Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend and then himself in 2012, the autopsy showed he had been suffering from CTE.

These startling reports have trickled down to the game's youth. Pop Warner, one of the nation's largest youth football programs, experienced a participation drop of roughly 9.5 percent from 2010 to 2012. ESPN reported that Pop Warner lost 23,612 players in that time period--the largest two-year decline since the organization began keeping statistics.

Some parents, like Chicago mother Gineen Hecht, said they'll try to influence their children away from football. Hecht explained why her 15-month-old son, Andrew, won't be allowed to play in the future.

"When I hear former players stating that they would not allow their own children to play football, that says a lot," she said. "Research also shows that once children have a concussion that they are more vulnerable to them in the future. To us, it is not worth the risk. The long-term possible consequences can be devastating, and therefore, (as) a parent of a boy, I feel I must protect him from activities which may lead to brain injuries. No football for Andrew."

Some players are making this decision for themselves. Steven Feldman played football throughout childhood in his local park district league. Now in eighth grade at Edgewood Middle School and prepping for high school, Feldman said he's hanging up his pads for good.

"Safety played a factor in [my quitting] because concussions were getting more and more common," Feldman explained.

For some, it's not so easy. Noah Wiza played football for Riverside Brookfield over a decade ago and now serves as the assistant football coach for his alma mater. Though he's clearly passionate about the game, he's also aware of the dangers it poses.

"As a coach and someone who loves the game of football, having played and received my own concussions, I find myself in a moral dilemma of letting my kids play someday," Wiza said.

Safety precautions are being instituted across the nation that limit the amount of contact kids experience while playing, and helmet regulations are stricter than ever. But the question remains: Is it too little too late? And if things don't turn around, is the country's most popular sport in trouble?


This article was written by Katie Karmin of North Shore Country Day
and Charlie Connelly of Riverside Brookfield High School, and was originally published at TheMash.com on May 15, 2015. It is featured here as part of our new content exchange program with TheMash, the Chicago Tribune's teen edition.

 
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