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October 26th, 2010

Head Injuries Raise Questions About Safety of Football

Rutgers player Eric LeGrand remains in an intensive care unit paralyzed from the neck down after a gruesome hit during a game against Army on Oct. 16. The next day Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson and Atlanta Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson collided; both players collapsed and suffered concussions.

Young football players are especially at risk for head injuries, which have gotten increased attention since several NFL players suffered major concussions.

Since the beginning of the 2010 season, more than 41 NFL players have suffered a concussion — an injury to the brain — leading the league to begin issuing fines of up to $75,000 for harsh hits and suspensions for players who tackle above the neck and lead with their helmets.

But the new emphasis on clean tackles has met resistance from some fans and players.

Just a part of the game?

Americans have been trying to make football safer for more than a century.  In 1905, after his son began playing for the Harvard football team, President Theodore Roosevelt held a series of meetings with college sports representatives to try to encourage better sportsmanship.

Roosevelt’s actions did not translate into safer play (in fact, a group of Yale students may have intentionally piled onto the president’s son).  And now that the sport has become a multimillion dollar industry, enacting change is even harder.

Many NFL athletes have been playing football for their entire lives, and the NFL’s strong competitive nature and pressure to perform are some reasons that players ignore concussion symptoms or play before they are healed.

In addition, sports media focus on dramatic tackles, and some commentators and players have made fun of attempts to make the game safer.

After being fined $75,000 for leaving two Cleveland Browns receivers with concussions, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison threatened to retire if new rules are enforced. Harrison remarked in a post-game interview, “I’m not opposed to hurting anybody.”

NFL officials, however, released a video to demonstrate what is illegal.

“We all accept that football is a physical and tough game, but players must play under control,” NFL executive vice president Ray Anderson says in the video.

Serious injuries for young football players

The debate has also affected the way communities view their prized high school football traditions.

Every fall 1.2 million high school football players suit up for another season on the gridiron.

While the lure of “Friday Night Lights” excites towns big and small throughout the country, the pressure to compete has left many players with life-threatening head injuries. According to a New York Times report, 50 percent of high school football players have suffered at least one concussion and 35 percent have had more than one concussion.

Since 1997, at least 50 high school or younger football players in more than 20 states have died or suffered serious head traumas on the field. In 2001, 17-year-old Matthew Colby died of bleeding and swelling in his brain after suffering a concussion two weeks prior. Taylor Davison, 10, the only girl in a pee-wee league, was hit in the head during a scrimmage at her school. After complaining of dizziness and a headache, she died in 2003 from a subdural hematoma, or bleeding in the brain.

Awareness of head injuries is key

Often, a person who suffers a blow to the head does not know they have a concussion, which makes it very important that people who witness the event alert adults and urge the victim to seek medical attention.

Symptoms include memory loss, feeling dizzy or dazed, vomiting, headaches, blurred vision, slurred speech, feeling overly tired, difficulty concentrating and loss of balance.

Concussions can have long-term effects, as well. A 2007 study by the University of North Carolina discovered that out of 595 retired NFL players who had three or more concussions, over 20 percent suffered from depression. Others reported more problems with memory, concentration, speech impediments, headaches and other neurological problems.

In response, the NFL developed a set of return-to-play rules that state a player cannot return to a game or practice in which he lost consciousness and that a player must pass a neurological test before returning to play.

In August 2009, new rules stated a player cannot return if he shows any of the symptoms of a concussion, not just a loss of consciousness. A player also must be examined by an independent brain doctor — a neurologist — after a concussion.

–Compiled by Imani M. Cheers for NewsHour Extra

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