To play or not to play: there’s no easy answer

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It’s tantamount to blasphemy, especially in East Texas: Should parents, in light of the recent furor concerning brain injuries, allow their youngsters to play football?

Virtually every week, a new study is published detailing the long-term effects of brain trauma associated with the sport.

In Lindale, in East Texas and around the state, high school football is – and has been – a vital part of individual communities for decades. During at least 10 weeks during the fall, towns both big and small live and die with their high school football team.

To take that away would be a mistake and deny young men a tool to help them develop into productive citizens, loving husbands and fathers, says Lindale High School Head Football Coach Chris Cochran.

Obviously, he’s a bit prejudiced on the matter but first and foremost, Cochran is a teacher. He is dedicated to the belief that a public school teacher can be one of the most important influences in a young person’s life.

And football, he said, instills valuable traits that they will carry with them the rest of their lives.

“To me, (the game of) football is one of the best teachers we have,’’ he said. “Kids learn to deal with adversity and learn the value of teamwork. I know is it is a cliché, but the bonds these kids build now will serve them well from now on.’’

During the past decade, the inherent ferocity of the sport has caused the discussion to move from coaches’ offices and team owners’ pricey suites to research laboratories and lawmakers’ laps in Washington.

Human evolution has transformed players from normal-sized beings into behemoths who, when colliding with others of the same size, cause considerable damage.

Neurophathologist Dr. Ann McKee has examined the brains of 202 deceased football players and her findings were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2017.

Of that number, 110 were found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., a degenerative disease that is believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head.

The key figures in this equation, Cochran believes, is 111 of the 202 were former National Football League players.

“It’s important to remember (these players) had been playing the game for what, 20 or 25 years?’’ he said. “Realistically, the typical high school player will play for around four to six years.’’

This isn’t to suggest that safety isn’t paramount to Cochran and his staff. On the contrary, he said, providing the best equipment makes his players better.

“There’s going to be danger in any sport,’’ he said. “In football we have to insist on having the best equipment because we want our kids to be confident when they take the field.’’

Preparation time away from the field is just as essential, he added.

“It’s been shown that if you strengthen the neck and shoulder muscles concussions will go down,’’ he said. “Our coaches are always going to stress those neck and shoulder exercises to make sure injuries are kept to a minimum.’’

Cochran agrees with recent studies that show the game’s popularity – especially among young people – is waning to a degree. But like seemingly every other facet of life in the 21st century, information venues such as social media and the movie industry has brought the discussion to the front burner.

“Of course, it depends a lot on where you live,’’ he said, citing other areas of the country that aren’t as fanatical about the sport as East Texas. “(Football) is what we do here.’’

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