Parents’ concussion fears keep more Maine kids off football fields

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Kids workout at the Junior Rams football clinic Wednesday Aug. 9, at Cameron Stadium in Bangor.
Kids workout at the Junior Rams football clinic Wednesday Aug. 9, at Cameron Stadium in Bangor.

Crystal Sands appreciates the enthusiasm surrounding “Friday Night Lights” more than most of her peers.

The online writing professor and BDN homesteading blogger from Eddington was a high school cheerleader in her native Texas, fully immersed in that state’s football-crazed environment.

“Everyone went to the football games,” said Sands, a Maine resident for the last decade. “Football is in your blood, it was so much a part of the culture. Everyone was encouraged to play football.”

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Both of Sands’ brothers played high school football in Texas, and it was while watching them play that she first developed trepidations about the sport.

“My youngest brother ended up with a very serious concussion in high school,” she said. “He still never remembers what happened that night, but the film shows him getting up and going to the wrong sideline. He was in pretty bad shape.

“Having that happen to him was one of the first times when I thought, ‘When I have kids, I don’t know about football.’”

Sands and her husband, also a former high school football player, are the proud parents of an 8-year-old son whose size might prove attractive to football coaches.

But the memory of her brother and more recent revelations such as the 2013 PBS documentary “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” and the 2015 movie “Concussion” have left Sands much less a football cheerleader and much more a safety-conscious parent.

The Sands don’t want their son to play football — so much so that the family no longer watches National Football League games at home.

“We’ve just tried to discourage football as much as we can,” she said. “It was a very big decision for our family but my husband said he didn’t want our son to grow up thinking it was that important.

“We literally had to change the way we viewed the culture of football in order to make sure doesn’t develop that urge to play.”

The Sands are not alone in expressing reluctance to let their child play football. There has been a steady flow of information documenting the threat of head injuries such as concussions and the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, to long-term health.

An HBO/Marist Poll in 2016 found that 40 percent of adults and 44 percent of parents with a son under 18 were less likely to let him play football than a year earlier. That was up from 33 percent of adults and 36 percent of parents with a son under 18 in 2015.

The most recent participation rates for high school football support that sentiment.

According to an annual report by the National Federation of State High School Associations, football participation in 2016 was down by more than 25,000 players from the previous year despite 52 more schools nationwide offering 11-player football during that span.

However, football remains the No. 1 participatory sport for boys at the high school level with 1,086,748 players in 2016, the study reported.

High school football participation in Maine also has experienced a decline, according to the same study. It has gone from a high of 4,153 players at its peak during in 2008 to 3,657 eight years later — a drop of 11 percent.

The decrease is attributed to multiple reasons, among them a drop in student enrollment across the state, a wider array of interscholastic sports being offered, and sport specialization by some student-athletes.

There’s a general acknowledgement within the football community that concussion concerns have contributed to the trending numbers both at the high school and youth levels.

“We haven’t heard anything specific but we’d probably be fooling ourselves if we didn’t think so,” said Eric Marsh, a former University of Maine football player and assistant coach at both UMaine and Husson University in Bangor who is the coaching coordinator for Junior Rams Football, Bangor’s youth football program.

Study prompts new fears

A study published in July by the Journal of the American Medical Association concerning the relationship between football players and CTE is the latest item that might prompt concern among parents considering whether to let their children play the sport.

The study, led by Dr. Ann McKee at Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, examined the donated brains of deceased former football players and found that 177 of the 202 total brains studied had CTE, including 110 of the 111 brains donated from former NFL players.

That study has gained nationwide attention, including from Mike DeVito of Hampden, a former defensive lineman at UMaine who went on to play for nine years in the NFL until retiring after suffering two concussions during the 2015 season.

“When I had gotten the two concussions my final year, my wife had seen the studies that had come out back then and seen the ‘Concussion’ movie,” said DeVito, who didn’t play tackle football until high school because he was too big to play in his local youth league on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

“That was kind of the nail in the coffin for my career because she said, ‘I’m not going to watch you go through this anymore.’”

DeVito, the grandson of a successful, 30-year veteran high school football coach in New York, remains active in the sport as a clinician and a broadcaster. He admits the recent studies weigh heavily as he considers the potential athletic futures of his two sons, 3-year-old Rocco and 10-month-old Sal.

“Part of me hopes (Rocco) just wants to be a theologian and go to Harvard, but chances are because of my career he might want to play, so that’s something I’ve been thinking through,” DeVito said. “It’s easy when you’re just thinking for yourself, but when you’re dealing with your kids it’s a totally different thing and something I’ve been really thinking through.”

He might suggest his sons play flag football until they are older.

“Obviously I’m open to change based on evidence and argument and things like that, but right now where I’m at I would say get involved when you’re in high school. That’s when I started playing,” DeVito said.

Such sentiments are increasingly common within the football world, from peewees to the pros.

“From the NFHS level, we’ve known for a long time that football is one of the more dangerous sports,” said Dr. William Heinz, a recently retired orthopaedic surgeon from Portland.

He is the co-founder of the Maine Concussion Management Institute, former chair of the NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee and a liaison to the Maine Principals’ Association sports medicine panel.

“Probably rodeo and skydiving are more dangerous, but we don’t have any data on those.”

Safety first

One primary template for instructing football fundamentals in a more safety-oriented manner is USA Football’s “Heads Up” player safety program, which teaches tackling techniques that minimize the potential for helmet-to-helmet contact. First piloted by three programs in 2012, Heads Up now has been adopted by more than 7,000 youth and high school programs nationwide.

“It’s no more just getting your helmet in there,” Marsh said. “The helmet is a protective piece, not a weapon, and if you can’t see what you’re hitting you’re not doing it the right way and if you can see what you’re hitting then you’re not hitting with your head.

“We all love football and we want the kids to love football, but the game’s changed and we need to change with it if we want the kids to keep playing. We can’t keep doing the same things we’ve done in the past because the kids are leaving.”

Rules have been changed at all levels to address head-to-head collisions, equipment is being modernized with safety in mind and contact during practice sessions today is much more limited than a generation ago.

“As far as the precautions that are being taken and the equipment that is worn and the techniques that are taught and the changes made by coaches and administrators and people who support the game and teach it, I think we’re as safe as we’ve been,” said Dan O’Connell, head football coach at John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and also active in Bangor Junior Rams Football, where his 9-year-old son Matthew plays.

Statistics are being collected at the high school level that reflect changes in the sport in conjunction with updated guidelines for contact during practices recently developed by the NFHS.

High School RIO (Reporting Information Online), a collaboration between the NFHS and a research team led by Dr. Dawn Comstock of the University of Colorado, gathers injury-related information from around the country using certified athletic trainers as data reporters. There are 18 months of information available from that effort.

“In the first year we showed a significant decrease in concussions related to practice by having these guidelines and recommendations in place,” Heinz said. “We won’t know about things like CTE for a long time because it takes time to develop and until we have some brains to look at at autopsy we won’t really know.

“But the preliminary data is very promising that what we’ve done to make the sport safer is actually being very effective.”

The next step?

Heinz remains optimistic about high school football, asserting that the benefits of such aspects of the game as discipline, leadership, fair play and being part of the a team outweigh any risks, but he is concerned about the sport at the developmental level.

“To me the next step is to get rid of tackle football at the youth level,” he said. “I don’t see any reason why kids in the fifth and sixth grades are tackling.”

Heinz said there is resistance to the notion players not be allowed to tackle at the peewee level.

Youth football and high school coaches insist that as more information has become available to improve techniques and equipment, the sport is considerably safer than when they played.

“Do I think younger players are being taught correctly now and are playing with their heads ‘out of the game, out of the tackle?’” O’Connell said. “Yes, and over time I think we’ll see that the dangers are less because kids are not using their heads as a weapon, they’re not being exposed to the same helmet-to-helmet contact.

“Certainly I’m not a doctor, but I think with some of those things we sometimes assume are going to happen to every kid, we’ll realize that because we’re teaching the game so much better and because the equipment is so much better that hopefully we’ll see much less of it.”

Whether those efforts are enough to convince reluctant parents of football’s relative safety is another question.

Adam Henckler of York, a 1997 Bangor High School graduate who is an engineer at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, has steered his 6-year-old son toward soccer. That is in part because of steps soccer officials have taken to protect youngsters from head-injury concerns.

A 2015 player safety campaign announced by the U.S. Soccer Federation eliminates “heading” the ball for children 10 and younger while limiting the amount of heading in practice for youths ages 11 to 13.

“I guess I’d rather have my kids playing a sport where the top dogs for the country that manage it are at least being proactive when it comes to concussion protocol and making a safer environment for the youth,” he said.

“Football was built on being a smashmouth sport. It’s not a gladiator sport, we’re not being mauled by tigers, I get that. But there becomes a certain responsibility and ownership for the leagues of a particular sport to step up and say they’re going to do the right thing. I don’t know that football’s done that yet, and until I feel comfortable with it or until I see enough medical research that makes me feel comfortable, I’m not going to have my son play.”

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