High School Football Players Face Bigger Concussion Risk

October 31, 2013
Watch League of Denial, FRONTLINE’s investigation into the NFL’s concussion crisis, and Football High, an examination of the changing nature of high school football.

High school football players are nearly twice as likely to sustain a concussion as are college players, yet it “remains unclear” as to whether repetitive head injuries can lead to long-term brain disease, according to a new report released Wednesday.

The study, which was an analysis of peer-reviewed studies on head trauma in a variety of high school sports, estimated that high school football players suffered 11.2 concussions for every 10,000 games and practices. Among college players, the rate stood at 6.3.

The authors cautioned, however, that their estimates are likely conservative because many concussions go unreported and because data on such injuries is limited.

The study, which was conducted by the Institute of Medicine and funded by the NFL, found that in most cases, concussions symptoms disappear within two weeks. “In 10 to 20 percent of individuals, however, concussive symptoms persist for a number of weeks, months, or even years,” the authors noted.

While documenting a link between concussions and memory loss, the report left unanswered the question of whether football-related head trauma in young players can lead to a range of other issues that many former NFL stars have said they’ve had to battle in retirement, including depression, suicidal impulses, Alzheimer’s disease or the neurodegenerative condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

“Whether repetitive head impacts and multiple concussions sustained in youth lead to long-term neurodegenerative diseases, such as CTE and Alzheimer’s disease, remains unclear,” according to the report.

Others have suggested a much more direct link. As FRONTLINE reported in a recent investigation into the NFL’s concussion crisis, researchers led by Dr. Ann McKee at Boston University have discovered CTE in the brains of dozens of deceased football players. Among the youngest players found to have had the disease were 18-year-old Eric Pelly, who played a number of sports including football, and Owen Thomas, a college football player who hanged himself at the age of 21. (Watch McKee discuss the Pelly case in the below clip)

The institute’s findings come at a time of heightened sensitivity among parents about the risks of playing football. Earlier this month, for example, an HBO Real Sports/Marist Poll found that most Americans are aware of a connection between football and long-term brain injury, with about one-in-three saying this knowledge would make them less likely to allow a son to play.

Despite such concern, the authors found that “there is still a culture among athletes” that resists the self-reporting of concussions. Moreover, they noted, “youth profess that the game and the team are more important than their individual health and that they may play through a concussion to avoid letting down their teammates, coaches, schools and parents.”

The report also raised new concerns about just how far helmets can go to protect athletes from concussions. In May, FRONTLINE reported that as early as 2000, the NFL’s official helmet provider, Riddell, was warned that even a helmet that passed industry safety standards for protection against skull fractures and other severe head injuries could still leave a player with a 95 percent likelihood of receiving a concussion.

Helmets can in fact reduce the risk of injuries such as skull fractures, according to the study, “and thus the use of properly fitted helmets should be promoted.” The authors cautioned, however, that “there is limited evidence” that current helmet designs can cut the risk of concussions.

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