Athletics should teach safety as well as teamwork

Published 2:33 pm Friday, September 16, 2011

One of our staffers can remember a high school football practice long ago and far away. A teammate lunged into tackling dummy helmet first. An assistant coach came running in, waving his arms and blowing his whistle.

“Men,” the coach said to the freshmen and sophomores waiting their turn to tackle. “Two things: One, what he just did is called spearing. It’s a 15-yard-penalty, and it can get somebody hurt. And two, they never call it.”

We’d like to think that football, with the physicality, teamwork and mental effort the sport demands, can help young men grow up.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

But part of growing up must be the development of mature judgment about what’s truly important — like reducing, to the greatest extent possible, the risk of serious or even permanent injury. That’s why the St. Martin Parish School Board deserves praise for joining other school systems last week in adopting a policy to protect all athletes, not just football players.

State law now requires that parents and coaches be made aware of the risks associated with concussions. The law, like the St. Martin Parish board, goes further, requiring coaches to remove players immediately from practice or games when signs of a concussion appear. …

Some of us might be inclined to say that they were grown men who knew the risks inherent in their sport. But we must also acknowledge that many experts believe the worst effects of concussions are preventable. While one’s first concussion is to be devoutly avoided, the real damage seems to occur when an athlete with a concussion returns quickly to competition and gets another blow to the head.

The science isn’t conclusive yet, but studies suggest strongly that retired National Football League players known to have received multiple concussions are far more likely than their peers to suffer from depression and memory-affecting conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.

Changing NFL rules protects only a tiny fraction of football players, and only when they reach the sport’s pinnacle.

The real changes must occur in youth leagues, in middle school and high school, and in college. That’s why the Louisiana Legislature called the right play for this situation.