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Kids, football and brain injuries — let’s use our heads

Roger Goodell

Roger Goodell

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Updated: October 1, 2013 6:26AM

Now that the NFL has settled a lawsuit over brain injuries suffered by football players, parents should be making sure their kids will never be the ones who need to collect.

The size of the NFL settlement with former players announced Thursday — $765 million — illustrates the seriousness of the issue, and not just for professional athletes. This month, the NCAA agreed to try to negotiate its own settlement in response to potential class-action lawsuits filed in Chicago.

For students still in elementary and high school, we need to do all we can to ensure they never suffer lasting brain injuries. On Thursday, Sen. Dick Durbin — whose grandson has suffered two concussions in high school football — said he will introduce legislation when the Senate reconvenes to bolster procedures for preventing, detecting and treating K-12 student athletes who get concussions. It’s an idea that merits broad bipartisan support.

Concussions are traumatic brain injuries usually caused by blows to the head. The brain needs time to recover, but too often athletes return to their sports before healing is complete, putting them at risk of “second-impact syndrome,” a new injury that occurs before the first one has cleared up. Repeated blows to the head can lead to dementia, depression or possibly chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease found in the brains of dozens of former pro football players after they died. Unlike damage to elbows or knees, significant harm from repetitive brain injuries can’t be cured.

Durbin’s bill, called the Protecting Student Athletes from Concussions Act, would direct states to develop safety guidelines for public schools, including posting concussion information on school grounds and websites, and imposing a “when in doubt, sit it out” policy that would require student athletes to sit out the rest of the game after any suspected concussion. In 2011, the Illinois High School Association started requiring school districts to educate students, families and coaches about the nature and risk of concussions and requiring students to abstain from sports until they are cleared by a health care professional. But Illinois does not have a “when in doubt, sit it out” rule. According to the IHSA, since 2010 nearly 20 percent of students taken out of a game returned to play.

The National Federation of State High School Associations estimates that about 140,000 high school athletes now suffer concussions every year. That’s up from 55,000 in 2005-2006, according to the High School Reporting Information Online database, possibly because fewer concussions are being missed. And a 2010 student by the Government Accountability Office found that many sports-related concussions go unreported. According to Durbin, youth athletes are at greater risk of sports-related concussions than college or professional athletes because their brains are more susceptible to injury — and female youth athletes are especially susceptible. That’s why a “when in doubt, sit it out” policy was recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine in 2011.

It’s not easy for sideline coaches to know if a student is suffereng from a concussion. Special boards that detect how much a person is swaying can help, but they are expensive and hard to transport. And students, susceptible to the play-through-pain culture, will sometimes fib about their symptoms so they can stay in a game.

For years, concussions were described as “having your bell rung,” and the risk of long-term damage was not taken seriously.

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