No, it's not the end of football

Waukomis combines to gang tackle Cherokee’s Cody Gilstrap Oct. 14, 2016 at Waukomis High School. A recent CTE study report is raising concerns again about the impact of concussions in football. (Billy Hefton / Enid News & Eagle)

Billy Hefton / Enid News & Eagle

A report published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association gave rise again to those decrying football as a sport too barbaric and violent to be allowed to continue. 

One radio station, in a Facebook post, headlined its story about the report “Is this the beginning of the end of football?”

What led to the latest round of bleating and hand-wringing was a report on research on 202 former players, now deceased, that showed 177 of the brains studied were diagnosed with chronic traumatic enecephalopathy (CTE), a debilitating brain disease with symptoms that include memory loss and has been identified with past repeated concussions.

While a nearly 90 percent incidence rate is nothing to sneer at, it also needs some perspective. The brains had been mostly donated by family members of the former players because the players had repeated concussions and/or exhibited symptoms related to possible CTE before their deaths. CTE can only be diagnosed postmortem.

According to an Associated Press report on the research findings, 110 of 111 brains of former NFL players, 48 out of 53 college players and nine of 14 semi-pro players, seven of eight Canadian Football League players and three out of 14 high school players were diagnosed with CTE. It was not found in the brains of two younger players according to AP.

The report included former NFL players Bubba Smith, Ken Stabler, Dave Duerson and Ralph Wenzel.

What is noteworthy, and equally important, is the low incidence of CTE found in the youngest players. That is significant as it reflects the impact changes in rules and concussion protocols have had in football since CTE began to emerge as a significant potential contributor to early death or suicide and depression. 

Across the board, from the NFL to college to high school and youth leagues, there has been a stepped-up recognition of the signs of concussion and how to handle the symptoms. Concussion protocols, both during and post game, now keep players out of games and practice until they are able to pass a successful battery of tests. This is no game and teams are held accountable for any misstep in the process.

Equipment upgrades have significantly reduced the incidences of head injuries and strict enforcement during games of illegal hits (targeting, above the shoulders, etc.) have had the desire effect of reducing injuries.

Not all voices though see the recent results as an indictment of the game of football.

Dr. Ann McKee, a Boston neurologist and lead author of the report, told the AP many questions remain unanswered, such as how many years of football is too many years, what is the genetic risk and the impact of other lifestyle risks such as alcohol, drugs, steroids and diet. 

In the same AP story, Dr. Munro Collum, a neuropsychologist at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, noted the report was based on a selective sample not necessarily representative of all football players.

Is that enough to start considering banning football? Hardly. The upshot, as noted, is the seriousness the issue of player health and how it has taken center stage in protecting players.

On the high school level we have nearly seen the abolition of two-a-days, an outdated, outmoded relic of the past that pretty much serves to do little other than to completely wear players down.

There has been a very responsible effort to strike a balance in the machismo world of football and safety and that’s something to celebrate.

But that is not to say machismo is a bad thing. Not at all. Football may be the most macho sport in our sporting landscape and in an era when it seems anything that lets boys be boys and men be men is out of fashion, football serves an important purpose.

Having covered the game for many years on all levels (from my experience as a sideline/press box expert - hah), there really is no other sport that teaches respect for each other better than football. No sport seems to engender comaraderie like football.

There is a genuine sense of brotherhood that football brings unlike any other sport.

The game certainly is analagous at times in going to battle and the brotherhood that the game demands and develops is unique.

High school coaches throughout our area have taken seriously the medical needs and consequences that have been identified through constantly evolving medical research.

Even end-of-practice “gassers” appear to be going the way of the dinosaur thinking of not allowing players to frequently hydrate themselves.

Taken in context, the report represents a road map for continued study and safeguards, many of which seem to be having the desired positive impact. No sport is without risks.

What the report doesn’t suggest is football needs to be banned.  

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Ruthenberg is sports editor for the Enid News & Eagle. He can be reached at daver@enidnews.com.

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