Weather Updates

Giving the hazards of football a closer look

Updated: August 25, 2013 5:20PM

August is a time to enjoy the dog days of summer when Chicago has them, back-to-school sales and the start of football.

That assumes you can still stomach football. Every year it gets harder for me to do so.

On many fronts, the sports is unsettling.

Let’s start with youth football.

“Why does Pop Warner exist,” an orthopedist asked me once, referring to the popular youth football league. It was a rhetorical question.

“For the parents,” the doctor said.

Boys who are 7 or 8 probably wouldn’t give the game a second thought if their parents didn’t talk it up. Many kids probably pretend to be excited to please enthusiastic moms and dads.

There is another kind of parent, one that dreads the day a child asks to play.

“I have a son who is 12, and I’m very grateful he doesn’t want to play football,” Robert D. Stevens, a neuroscience critical-care doctor at Johns Hopkins, said by phone. “I don’t think we know enough to know we aren’t exposing our kids to harm.”

Early on, there doesn’t seem to be much harm. The youngest boys playing football run around a lot without actually tackling anyone. That’s endearing.

But it doesn’t take long to develop tackling skills, because many youth teams practice five days a week, which is asking a lot of children, and some play a dozen games including the playoffs. In stark contrast, freshman and sophomore high school teams play only nine games each season.

From youth football, players move on to the high school game, a bridge to the big lights of the college game. Any parent who dreams of having a child win a football scholarship needs an icy bucket of Gatorade poured on them to bring them back to reality.

Those scholarships can come at a steep price. That is painfully clear in a lawsuit filed by former college athletes in football, men’s ice hockey and women’s soccer against the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The plaintiffs, who are seeking class-action status, allege the NCAA has fallen way short on enforcing its safety guidelines.

The lawsuit underscores that every sport has risks, but football is under scrutiny like never before.

It’s about time.

Football long ago replaced baseball as America’s game and merits every bit of examination.

The NFL is being sued by thousands of former players who believe the league hid information about the dangers of repeated blows to the head.

I called Dr. Stevens at Johns Hopkins to get his thoughts on repeated head trauma in football. He was in a bit of a quandary. As a doctor he sees the significance of young people, especially children, playing sports. “We can’t underestimate their value to enhance health,” he said.

In football there is accumulating evidence between suffering multiple head injuries in the NFL and increased risk of neuropsychiatric symptoms and degenerative disorders for some players but not all, he said.

A few times Stevens said the sport needs more research. Technology is allowing doctors to find previously undetected injuries. Within 10 years players should be able to undergo tests to determine if they are susceptible to brain illness.

As it is now, there is a false sense of protection. For instance, despite wearing a helmet, a player running at full speed who collides with another can suffer a significant brain injury detectable only by advanced magnetic resonance imaging, Stevens said.

“A conventional scan shows nothing [but] these very violent impacts are concerning at any age.”

Even in the youth leagues.

© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit To order a reprint of this article, click here.