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April 17, 2011, 9:31 pm

Friday Night Blights

Originally posted on the Huffington Post.

At the risk of being blackballed by a nation of rabid fans of the pigskin, I can’t help but ask a very timely question: What is the future of football? And I’m not talking about the possible lockout. I want to know what the sport’s future is in light of all the life-threatening injuries and dangerously destructive playing. Am I the only one forecasting that the game will be outlawed sooner or later, because of the traumas that come from playing? Or are all these injuries sustained each time a young man puts on a jersey worth a rethinking and rebooting of one of our national pastimes? The recent suicide of Dave Duerson, the former Bears safety, who donated his brain to science, was either a first down or the final time-out of the game.

As someone who is more than acquainted with brain trauma, I’m particularly sensitive to the future of this game, but I’m not alone. Last night, PBS’s “Frontline” featured a segment called “Football High,” which explored the new face of high school football, and it’s not at all pretty.

According the show, “Football observers and sports journalists alike agree that on average, high school players’ size, speed and strength have increased dramatically over the past five to 10 years. At Euless Trinity in Texas, which has been ranked the No. 1 high school team in the country, 18 of the 89 varsity players weigh over 250 pounds.”

Now imagine how much more intense that has already made a hard-core sport, and you’ve got a lot of pressure on today’s young footballers to not only outperform but also take blows that nobody should have to take. And not only that, but consider our nation’s young men dying of heatstroke because they continue to practice in unbearable heat. But what really astounds me is the number of concussions high school players sustain each year, according to “Frontline”: a whopping 60,000. Many of them go untreated because of a common notion that players should be “tough” and that injuries are part of what makes fans buy tickets. And if that’s not enough to raise your eyebrows, consider a recent study from the Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Between 1990 and 2007, the study says, 5.25 million football-related injuries in children between the ages of 6 and 17 were treated in emergency rooms in the U.S.—an increase of 26.5 percent in that time period. How can we continue to let this happen?

Enter higher-ups in the world of sports who are taking notice and trying to stop the madness. Last May, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote to no less than 44 governors urging them to pass laws protecting young athletes and removing from play any student athlete suspected of having a concussion until cleared by a doctor to return. This month, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad signed this measure into law, and hopefully other states will follow suit.

As we see more evidence of repeat injuries (including those that go unreported) and lack of regulation for football that’s not at collegiate or pro level, let’s hope we can begin to protect our young athletes so that they don’t end up like Shane Dronett, another pro player who committed suicide, an act that was ultimately linked to a brain damaged on the field. Scientists studied his brain postmortem and found that he was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, also called boxer’s dementia, a condition “caused by repetitive head trauma,” according to the Mayo Clinic.

This is a tragic consequence of a world gone extreme. Do we need to dial down a notch and stop expecting not only our athletes but maybe also ourselves to take everything to a bar that is unattainable, unrealistic and self-destructive? Look for this conversation to continue as more families and friends of these players speak up in favor of reform.

Maybe Lady Gaga was “born this way,” but I feel that most of us, including super-athletes, were not “built this way.” Not even the superhuman among us can handle injuries of that magnitude. We need to call a massive fumble on all things extreme and investigate how to play better as a team. After all, it used to be that “football widows” referred to those of us ladies left to our own devices while our significant others watched a game; now the term has a new—and quite unfortunate—meaning.

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