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Traumatic brain injury and youth football

At least nine youth football players have died in the United States since September while playing the game. Last month, a 9-year-old boy in Pomeroy, Ohio, collapsed and died. In Hubbard Township, near Youngstown, Ohio, a player suffered a traumatic brain injury during the second quarter of a high school football game in September. He was rushed to Cleveland for surgery; at the time, no one knew how long his recovery would be.

Many youth and high school football players in Ohio and throughout the United States suffer concussions and other head and brain injuries; 47 percent of players are diagnosed with concussions and TBI during their high school playing days. At least 35 percent have multiple concussions in the same season, according to a story last year in the Huffington Post.

Most experts, however, believe that these percentages represent the tip of the iceberg. The American College of Sports Medicine has estimated that 80 percent of concussions are not reported.

College and professional football leagues lead the way in numbers of concussions

College and professional football players suffer concussion and other head and brain injuries at even higher rates. One study found that 96 percent of former NFL players had signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease. Another study found that 79 percent of players at all levels, including high school players, showed signs of CTE.

CTE is thought to be the result of repeated blows to the head. It is not surprising that NFL players have higher rates of CTE; they have had more years to suffer repeated blows.

The NFL has already paid out significant sums in settlements for brain-injured players who sued the league. There have also been numerous instances of players simply not renewing their contracts and leaving football because of their health concerns.

Coaches and students under pressure to play and succeed

It does not minimize the suffering of these professional players to point out that they are very well paid for playing football and know the risks of the game. The same cannot be said of high school athletes, who may be unaware of the risks and are often under intense family and community pressure to play.

Although high school coaches are supposed to be trained in recognizing concussion and are prohibited from sending concussed players back into a game, they, too, are also under intense pressure to win. As a result, they sometimes cut corners. Sending a concussed player back into a game increases that player's risk for a second concussion as well as CTE later in life. It also increases the risk of Alzheimer's disease, depression, memory loss and other degenerative brain conditions as well as decreased intellectual capacity.

Lawsuits against school districts seldom successful

Lawsuits against school districts because of football injuries are often dismissed. A lawsuit against the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) was dismissed this fall. The judge said that making the IHSA additionally liable for concussion and traumatic brain injury would "change the sport of football and potentially harm it or cause it to be abandoned." This may be small comfort to parents and their brain-injured children.

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