Spate of head injuries among pro athletes concerns parents of young football players - East Valley Tribune: Sports

Spate of head injuries among pro athletes concerns parents of young football players

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Posted: Saturday, October 30, 2010 2:00 pm

Christian Shaifer begged his parents to let him play tackle football. But Kevin and Anita Shaifer resisted.

They felt exposing their son to so much contact at such a young age could do more harm than good.

They knew Christian had an aggressive nature and high threshold for pain and worried he may suffer an injury with long-term ramifications.

The Shaifers waited until this year to allow 13-year-old Christian to finally join the Ventura Packers youth team and they are not alone in their concern.

In light of recent revelations about head injuries in sports, more parents are asking the question: How young is too young to start playing tackle football?

New medical research shows that successive and seemingly minor hits to the head over an extended period could lead to long-term brain damage. Other studies have concluded that repeated concussions can cause brain illnesses such as early-onset Alzheimer's disease, chronic depression and chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Roughly 3 million kids ages 6-14 play tackle football in the United States.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate there are 135,000 emergency-room visits per year for traumatic brain injuries among people ages 5-18. But it's believed many more concussions go unreported or even undetected.

The National Football League has made a big push this season to take head injuries more seriously with stricter guidelines for dealing with concussions and larger fines for dangerous hits.

Recently the reason for the heightened concern was displayed as several NFL players were hurt after helmet-to-helmet hits and a Rutgers University player was paralyzed from the neck down after making a tackle.

Because of its popularity and high visibility, the NFL's focus on head injuries has resulted in a trickle-down effect.

College, high school and youth football programs are taking extra precautions and implementing more guidelines to help avoid serious head injuries.

Last month, Congress held hearings about finding ways to protect student-athletes from the risk of permanent brain damage from head injuries.

USA Football, a national governing body at the youth and amateur levels, has developed a 12-minute video about concussions and included it as part of a coaching certification exam. The organization is pushing the motto "when it doubt, keep them out" in regard to players who suffer concussions.

Although many youth league administrators say their players aren't big enough and don't hit hard enough to cause serious damage, neuropathologist Bennet Omahu told Congress there is particular risk for brain injury to younger players because their brains have yet to fully develop.

"During practice and during games, a single player can sustain close to 1,000 hits to the head, in only one season, without any documented or reported incapacitating concussion," said Omahu, the co-founder and director of the Brain Injury Research Institute at West Virginia University. "Such repeated blows over several years, no doubt, can result in permanent impairment of brain functioning, especially in a child."

Dr. Gerard Gioia, the chief of pediatric neuropsychology at Children's National Medical Center in Washington D.C., believes the value of sports participation can't be overlooked when discussing injury potential.

"The bottom line is that these sports overall have a better benefit than they do a cost," Gioia said. "I think the recent media attention and exposure to the issue of head injuries is good because it is really increasing the awareness that we have to take this seriously. Yet we have to make sure that we are getting the balanced message out there. Sports are a healthy and positive thing."

Chris Thomas spent eight seasons playing wide receiver in the NFL and knows how much pounding a body can take from football.

Thomas didn't want his son Rhylan, 10, enduring any hits before it was necessary. Rhylan played flag football last year and is taking this year off to focus on soccer.

"I looked at it from the vantage point of how much is he really going to gain from it that early," said Thomas. "What he can learn as a skill position player can come without contact. He really doesn't need to be exposed to contact at his age. To me, the benefit is very little."

Thomas, 39, still talks to many of his friends from the NFL and many have the same philosophy for their children.

"The consensus seems to be they don't have a strong desire for their kids to play at a young age at all," said Thomas, who didn't begin playing football until high school. "Most of them think starting their kids in high school is good enough. They have seen how physically demanding and how violent the sport can be and have seen guys suffer a lot of injuries. They don't want to risk it starting that young."

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