This evening, the 43rd Super Bowl will be played in Tampa. Bodies will be thrown at one another with a force that most of us will never experience (my year of freshman football at Savio notwithstanding). There will inevitably be breaks in the action for players who are slow to rise from the turf, and the sight of someone being whisked off the field via golf cart or ambulance is always possible.
Almost all of the most dangerous injuries will be ignored -- excepting maybe a replay that elicits a comment from the color commentator along the lines of, "Man, that was some hit!" In the coming years, however, the individuals involved in that hit, and many of the others, will be living with the effects of playing a contact sport for a span of years, and we are only starting to realize the effect of this.
Last week the autopsy of an 18-year-old football player revealed "the earliest signs of an incurable debilitating disease caused by the kind of repetitive head trauma he experienced on the field." After playing the game only at the high-school level, this kid was already showing signs of brain damage because of hits taken or given on the football field.
With the Super Bowl as a back drop, some doctors and former players are pushing the National Football League to take more seriously the issue of concussions, which some are calling a "crisis," that affects football players from Pop Warner level to the NFL. The Globe editorialized on the subject today.
I know a little bit about this subject because I wrote a story on concussions back when I was a sports reporter in Maine. In the fall of 2005 I interviewed doctors, athletes, coaches, athletic directors, trainers, school nurses and parents, and the result was an article entitled "Hard Knocks" (which, I must add, took a first-place award from the Maine Press Association that year).
Concussions are serious business. They are small brain injuries, but they are brain injuries nonetheless, and should be treated as such by everyone involved. When a player returns to a game -- football, hockey, soccer, basketball or whatever -- not long after getting his or her "bell rung" there is a risk to the long-term brain function of that person, which can affect thinking, concentration, behavior and attitude.
In the case of the NFL, they should see to it that all practicable precautions are taken to insure that players are protected and that they fully understand the risks so they are best able to weigh the cost of being macho with the long-term health of their brain. The league also needs to use some of its money to help care for those who have already paid the price on the field.
Most concussions, however, affect younger athletes, and parents need to educate themselves and their children on the subject. Is a little temporary glory on the high-school field really worth a lifetime of headaches and depression?