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Chris Honoré: A moral conundrum, redux

This month the United States Soccer Federation, responding to a class-action suit filed in 2014 on behalf of parents and players alleging that U.S. Soccer was negligent in monitoring and treating players’ head injuries, amended its rulebook. The changes barred players under 11 from heading (as it’s called) and reduced heading in practice for those 11 to 13. Because the litigation sought no financial damages, once the rules were officially revised the suit was withdrawn.

The reality faced by the federation was that some 50,000 soccer players were concussed in 2010 — more than wrestling, baseball and basketball combined. As well, a correlation was established between repetitive heading and neurodegenerative problems.

Compared to high school football, also a sport that involves high-impact contact involving the head, changing U.S. Soccer’s rulebook was a relatively easy fix.

Consider that there has been, over the past seven years, a growing body of scientific data regarding brain trauma in football that is now unequivocal. Researchers have described the brain as the yolk inside an egg, surrounded by a protective fluid. When the head is impacted, the brain sloshes back and forth, hitting the inside of the skull, which can cause a concussion. The initial constellation of symptoms are dizziness, nausea and disorientation, perhaps followed by light-headedness, headaches, memory impairment, sleep problems and depression.

The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that emergency visits for concussions in kids 8 to 13 have doubled, and have risen 200 percenta mong teens ages 14 to 19 in the past decade.

Scientists now know that repeated concussions can permanently alter the brain and can ultimately result in what is called encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain condition. But what is also alarming is the research into changes in brain activity of large athlete populations where no symptoms are manifested. These changes can occur from what is known as pre-concussive trauma that can result in dramatic changes in the wiring and biochemistry of the brain, meaning actual structural damage that has been largely ignored.

Cumulative pre-concussive injuries (multiple hits over years of play including second-impact syndrome, meaning a hit before an initial concussion has healed) can indeed have effects that may not be revealed for years, even though immediate symptoms may resolve. Memory and attention deficits, as well as mood swings and personality changes, can occur, signaling degenerative brain disease (CTE) as well as the early onset of dementia (the studies of professional football players are harrowing and tragic).

We know that high school football poses risks (14 players have thus far died this season); however, it is what we don’t know (players can’t report what they don’t feel to include a reluctance to be forthcoming) that can be the most insidious, especially for younger athletes whose brains are still developing.

Regarding the mentioned moral conundrum: Schools, coaches and parents are now aware of the research that has been generated by scientists who have studied CTE in its various forms.

But it is also a reality that unlike soccer, a rulebook change cannot easily occur in football. The game, by definition, is intensely physical and hard-hitting, often when opponents are moving at high speeds. And though much attention has been given to helmet design, there is no helmet that can insulate the player from the impacts that are sustained on the field of play.

But high school football is not just a game. It is embedded in our culture and a gestalt of collective behavior and fascination that transcends Friday night lights. It is a sport wherein students (and by extension the community) are involved. There is pregame excitement, marching bands, cheerleaders, school colors, mascots and, of course, the status of the players themselves.

It is now known that there is a dark side to this game, and it involves those players who walk the halls of the school, wearing numbered jerseys, feeling waves of approbation from students and adults alike, who may pay a price they are not aware of. The question, then, is one posed to all those adults involved: Knowing now what has only been dimly known before, isn’t there a moral imperative involved that requires a measured response?

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.