by Dennis Dalman
Has football become too dangerous to remain a high-school sport.
That was the lively topic of the second “Sartell Says” debate that took place Feb. 19 at Sartell City Hall.
Before and after the debate, the overwhelming majority of the audience (close to 80 percent) were in favor of football remaining a high-school sport. However, the other side of the debate – those who argued against the resolution – were declared the winners of the debate because more people changed their minds during the debate to jibe with their way.
Before the debate began, audience members were each given two cents. They were encouraged to put one of the pennies in one of three buckets that reflected their opinions: a green bucket for those in favor of football remaining a high-school sport, a red bucket opposed to that resolution, or a yellow bucket for “Undecided.”
Before the debate, 76 percent of audience members were for high-school football. After the debate, that side gained by 3 points, to 79 percent.
Those against continuing football as a high-school sport before the debate accounted for 5 percent of the audience. After the debate, pennies in buckets showed that percentage had increased by 10 percent, from 5 percent to 15 percent.
The “Sartell Says’ series of debates is moderated by Patty Candella of Sartell, who is the executive producer of the series. It’s funded by contributions, and the City of Sartell hosts it in the city hall’s council chamber.
The two debaters in favor of the resolution were Julie Alexander, an athletic trainer for the athletic programs at St. Cloud State University; and Dave DeLand, St. Cloud Times sports writer who has covered college and high school sports, including football, for 30 years.
The two debaters arguing against the resolution were Tony Cunningham, a former boxer and current philosophy professor at St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict; and Dr. George Morris, a sports and family practitioner at CentraCare.
The debate began with opening statements. The following are brief, paraphrased summaries of the points made by each debater:
DeLand: He told about a high-school football player who, approaching the end zone, caught the ball over his shoulder, then ran into a goal post, breaking his right wrist and being knocked unconscious. It was, he said, the only touchdown that guy ever scored and – go figure – he was unconscious and so could not enjoy the triumph. That guy, DeLand said, was he himself, long ago in high school. Despite the concussion he received in that knockout, DeLand said he has always been grateful for the chance to play football. It was, he said, an important part of his life.
If football is banned from high school, almost every sport would have to go. Gymnastics has the most potential for catastrophic injuries, he said. DeLand’s own niece had to quit soccer because of severe headaches. It’s not fair to equate high-school football with NFL football because the NFL is well known for dramatic very high-impact body collisions. High-school football programs, he said, emphasize the right, safer way to play the sport. If the criterion is “They might get hurt,” DeLand said, then all high-school sports would have to be abolished, and nobody wants that, he added.
Cunningham: Adults and school personnel are stewards for the well-being of students. Yes, students can get hurt if jabbed by a pencil, but football can result in serious brain injuries. In most high-school sports, athletes can get hurt when they miscalculate or make mistakes. However, football is different because its players at the high-school level have been bigger, faster and stronger and, thus, body collisions are more likely to cause concussions and other serious injuries. Six high-school players in the United States have died in just one year. And even if injuries don’t result in death, they can lead to neurological brain damage in later years. A high-schooler’s brain does not develop fully until later, when they are in their mid-20s. Cunningham said he’s in favor of improving safety, such as helmets, but safety measures cannot prevent serious injuries from such a hard-hitting sport. Helmets, he said, can stop the head from opening up, but it cannot stop a brain from being jarred and joggled inside the skull. Young men’s brains are “wired for taking risks,” he noted. Young football players are likely to hide any injuries from parents and coaches so they won’t have to sit out games. Those factors, he said, make football playing a dangerous, risky sport.
Alexander: The incidents of football injuries has improved throughout the 20th Century, she said. Helmets, especially, were a helpful innovation, especially those designed and made in the 1970s, which helped reduce head injuries dramatically. Football, she noted, does have the highest concussion incidence in high-school sports, but, on the other hand, there are more concussions noted in all sports. That, she said, could be due to increased awareness and reporting. Concussions are actually more common in females than in males. It’s also a false assumption that concussions surely lead necessarily to brain damage. Nowadays, in all states, there is an immediate removal of all players from play if they suffer a concussion. Education and awareness must be stressed, playing techniques must be monitored, practices should be limited and heads in high-school sports must not be used as “weapons.” And concussions must be treated, not ignored. There are twice as many concussions in high schools than in colleges, and that, she said, is due mainly to a “glaring” lack of medically trained personnel and trainers present at high-school games.
Morris: Football is a “collision sport” not a contact sport. It involves high speed, high impact, high powers. It’s not intentional, but such force can result in harm to another individual. Football has the highest risk of injuries. Even a small hit to the head can exert as much G-force as that felt by an F-15 fighter in acceleration. A major hit can exceed what an astronaut experiences on take-off from the Earth. Hits in football can be the equivalent of running into a brick wall at 35 mph. Yes, changes and safety improvements are all good, but they’re not always successful. Some studies show safety measures like helmets offer no definitive benefits to prevent internal head injuries. There have been good changes that made hockey safer. When it comes to football, parents, coaches, teachers, administrators must insist on safety changes. Cutting down on the number of practices is important to minimize the chance of heat injuries. Kids are growing bigger and faster than in previous times, making football more potentially dangerous. Football is worthwhile, but we can change how it’s being done in high schools today.
During the debate’s second round, questions were allowed from the moderator and the audience:
Moderator Candella: Where do parents rights’ fall into this debate?
Cunningham: Yes, parents should have say so, but like other accidents, parents shouldn’t be the only ones with say-so. Not all parents are good stewards or aware of football dangers. Society in some cases must help protect children, just as it protects citizens with other laws, such as roadway speed limits.
DeLand: Parents do have input, and if kids want to be involved in sports, including football, it’s probably a good thing. Extracurricular activities of all kinds, not just sports, have been shown to help students in so many ways: increased focus, organization, regimental skills. Thus, such students do better in school and in later life.
Moderater Candella: But isn’t this an ethical dilemma when we know football is inherently dangerous?
Cunningham: It is an ethical obligation of adults not to let children get into such risk-taking activities as football. The teenage brain does not mature until the mid-20s. It is a risk-taking brain when kids are in high school.
Moderator Candella: What if a young person does not report a concussion? And what about kids needing to feel tough and a reluctance to show any weakness?
Alexander: Education about concussions, especially by the coaching staff, can make a big difference in kids’ willingness to report problems. That “tough” mentality is changing. I’ve seen a change in the culture where that accusation of being a sissy is changing. Those changes are due to a new awareness by coaching staff and by younger players coming into the sports.
Morris: A concussion is not like getting a cast for a visible injury. Concussions can’t be seen so other clues must be sought if kids aren’t aware of them or don’t report them. Adults must be aware of other signs, such as trouble concentrating in class and vision problems.
Moderator Candella: But aren’t there hidden costs to playing, especially when the protocol seems to resume playing? And won’t some avoid treatment because of medical costs?
Morris: The coach or staff must tell the player there will be no more play until he or she is seen by a trained professional. Most office visits for any problems incur out-of-pocket expenses. Some schools do have trainers on staff for care. It does take time away from school/work, testing, evaluations and ongoing care until a concussion problem is cleared.
Alexander: Any injury can have out-of-pocket costs. At the college level, athletes with major injuries have access to medical supervision, treatment, referrals and more. Most high schools, however, don’t have that kind of medical coverage. There are not nearly enough medical experts or trainers at high schools, although some states do have such high-school experts by law. Computerized neurological testing can be done, and there are six or seven stages that must be certified before an injured player is allowed to go back on the field. Not being properly treated at the very beginning, right after a concussion, is the big danger.
Moderator Candella: There are lawsuits against the NFL because of players with brain injuries. Will high schools be vulnerable due to the same kinds of lawsuits?
DeLand: Comparing the NFL to the high-school level is like comparing apples to oranges.
Cunningham: Maybe a lawsuit could happen in Sartell. And what about Texas where football is bigger than life. If some player is a star quarterback, it’s easy to see how he would tend to hide multiple hits to his head. It’s hard to imagine us taking ourselves out of the picture.
Man in audience: How young do you start kids in football? I’m pro high-school football.
Morris: Definitely not in grade school. The skull structure is not adequate at those ages. Neck strength is very important in decreasing risk of concussions. It’s often caused by how hard players hit the ground. Coordination is not adequate for younger children for them to learn how to tackle correctly, how to fall correctly.
Alexander: “Checking,” a football technique, is not allowed at the Bantam, middle-school level. And, no, grade schoolers should definitely not play football.
Cunningham: Helmet manufacturers make all kinds of claims. Concussions still happen. Players are bigger, faster, stronger. There was a “Pop Warner” game in Massachusetts in which there were five concussions in that one game. And yet, parents afterwards defended that game.
Man in audience: How many people are on a football team compared to other sports. Isn’t that ratio (of concussions) skewed when more players are out there?
Alexander: Most studies say there are one-half to two-thirds the number of football injuries than for other sports. Ice hockey has a high number, but football has a higher incident of concussions per player because it’s a collision sport.
Moderator Candella: What is a comparable sport to football? Why no attention to girls’ soccer?
Anderson: Women have twice the rate of concussions in high-school sports than men do. It has a lot to do with less neck strength. Girls and women are also less hesitant than boys and men to report an injury. Soccer can involve repetitive trauma.
Morris: All head and neck injuries are worrisome. What’s scary is cheerleading is the highest risk activity for the most serious neck and head injuries because of all of that tossing up into the air and being distracted sometimes when doing so.
Moderator Candella: Is football a different game today than years ago?
DeLand: I’d like to see extent of injuries (statistics) way back in 1930s when they wore just leather helmets.
Alexander: Those stats do exist. There were 428 deaths from head and neck injuries from 1931 to 1969 in high school and 63 in college from 1970 to 2000, the death rate was about half that. In the last 10 years, there were 35 deaths in high school. Helmets have made a huge difference. The media creates a frenzy about the NFL, so college and high-school athletes try to mimic that – the hard-hitting style and launching themselves like a bullet at opponents with their heads.
Woman in audience: I was an athletic trainer, and now I’m a therapist who deals with athletes. I have a 12-year-old son and told him he can’t play football anymore. Cigarette smoke and underage drinking are life-threatening. So why do we let kids be involved in collision sports like football? Are parents really understanding the assumption of risk in collision sports?
Moderator Candella: And do schools assist in those risks?
Man in audience: I was a football coach at one time. Coaches get unfairly criticized. When the game is played properly, risks are reduced. Thousands die of gun injuries each year. There are students in bike accidents and car accidents. Why not concentrate on improving the safety of football so kids can pursue excellence rather than getting rid of the sport?
Cunningham: Yes, I agree, it should be made as safe as possible. But the real question is: Is it too unsafe even with helmets and other safety measures? How much (long-term) damage can occur to the brain from those collisions is not yet known. Things we don’t know can hurt us.
Morris: Football should probably not remain as it is in its current format. Can we find a better way to do it? I can see a future where small and big changes will happen in football.
DeLand: It’s pretty simple: Everybody has a thing they love to do, participate in, watch and has passion for. Extracurricular activities are enormously positive. Sports are every bit as much positive. My daughter was thrilled to be in a one-act play tournament. We can’t wrap ourselves in bubble wrap. Most athletes are in a sport because they love it. It’s an important part of their lives. It gets them more focused. It gets them doing things the right way.
Cunningham: Yes, it’s important for people to do things they love. Athletics is a wonderful outlet. I grew up in New York City. We kids played a game, leaning against a wall and pushing our backsides out, and then other kids would throw rubber balls against our butts. Well, one day, I came around the corner and there was my younger brother, Kevin, playing that game and they were using baseballs, not rubber balls. I’m not demeaning football or coaches. But we are depending upon athletes in high school – faster, stronger, more powerful – to police their own health. Their brains aren’t fully developed. They are taking too many risks.
Alexander: There are concussions in all sports. The problems in the NFL brought attention just to concussions in football. But the increased awareness is good because parents and schools will be able to make safety changes that must be made. If we ban football, we’ll have to examine all other sports. Good changes are being made, and the consequences (including consequences of not reporting concussions) must be understood by all.
Morris: Historically, football has evolved. Changes have been made. Today’s helmets are better and have made football safer. Hopefully, football will be much safer somewhere down the road.
Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.