Big hits in football a tough topic to touch on
"Usually it's not life-threatening or anything like that. It can shorten your life, but not by that much," a blue-chip quarterback recruit said.
"You're only 17 once. I have the rest of my life to worry about pain," another player added.
We all thought we were invincible when we were 17, athletes or not. Most of us probably would have said something similar.
But these opinions were shown after 50 minutes of throat-tightening examples of the effects of repeated hits to the head, a player who died from heatstroke, and how some schools are treating their teams like small-college programs, with the increased pressure to win attached.
Most of the documentary's content on injuries wasn't new, but it's still sobering. So is the nationalization of the game at the prep level, with networks such as ESPN broadcasting inter-state matchups and recruiting analysts blogging about every scouting combine. The season culminates with some top prospects announcing their college choices on live national TV.
It's a delicate issue because football is the all-powerful king of the American sports landscape. Who wants to be the person to say "Hey, we're starting to cross the line between physical and dangerous"? Or, "This is too much hype for teenagers."
A player for a Texas powerhouse said, "They teach us to play hard, even when you're hurt. It's instilled into us in junior high school, 'Get back up. It's all right. You can go to the next play.' "
The documentary noted how much bigger players are than a generation ago. That the players are bigger isn't all bad. It means they're more in tune with taking care of their bodies and know how to eat and hydrate properly.
What is bad is that most schools cannot afford to have athletic trainers on site at all times. With bigger and faster players, medical staff are needed. Frontline used the sad example of two players in Arkansas who collapsed while practicing on a day with a 112-degree heat index.
Both were put into medical-induced comas. The player whose school had a trainer survived and returned to the field six weeks after because the trainer knew what to do.
The other player died, and one of the reasons is because his school didn't have a trainer on site. The coaches did their best they could for him, but they could only wait until the ambulance showed up.
With concussions, studies are going on now. Evidence is showing that players can get degenerative brain disease without ever being diagnosed with a concussion, like death by 1,000 paper cuts.
One of the players interviewed tried to explain how his helmet works and said, "If I hit someone really hard, it doesn't hurt." He might not feel it when the hit takes place on the field. But doctors are starting to prove that those collisions add up.
The results are scary as some of the hits look, but it's football. It's such a big part of sporting culture. What kid would want to give up some of the best years of his life playing a sport he loves with his friends?
You can't adjust the rule book to reduce hitting without changing how the game is played. And how the game is played is what makes it so popular. Starting up a sport that, according to the documentary, accounts for two-thirds to three-quarters of high school sports injuries, is exorbitantly expensive and is only for one gender doesn't seem to make a lot of sense. But who doesn't want football?
Despite all the above, I couldn't imagine football any differently than it is now. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in the fall are made for it. That's why it's so difficult to look at this issue. I think most of us just wish it wasn't happening.
With NFL players, it's easier because you can say, "Well, they're adults and they chose to do this." One guy gets carted off and the next player in line takes his place. The injured and retired players are quickly forgotten.
We need to be more careful with high school players, though. But it sure seems easier to put it out of mind outside of the few minutes it takes to get an injured player off the field.
- Howard Primer