This week, Frontline, the award-winning news magazine TV show that is a staple on PBS, shone a light on seriously competitive high school football in Arkansas.
Watching it was a hypnotic and frightening experience.
The mind was numbed by adults, all of them safely out of harm’s way, sending young men onto the playing field with instructions to maim the opposition.
It was frightening to listen to teenagers talk of how this is now and it is now that is important, that there will be time in the future to deal with the pain.
While Football High dealt with various types of coaching methods and injuries — two players ended up in hospital due to heatstroke (one died; the other came out of a medically induced coma and returned to the playing field) — it managed to shed even more light on the problem of concussions in sports involving young people.
This, to be sure, is an inexact science.
CTE — chronic traumatic encephalopathy — has been found in the brains of a number of former professional football and hockey players. Very little research has been doing involving the brains of young athletes, primarily because one needs to die before the brain can be examined — sliced and diced, basically — by a neuropathologist.
However, Football High referenced Owen Thomas, a player with the University of Pennsylvania football team. A team captain, Thomas was 21 when he committed suicide in April 2010.
When his brain was examined, researchers were stunned to discover it was in the early stages of CTE.
Why were they so surprised?
Because Thomas had never been diagnosed with a concussion. Not even once.
This discovery was just one more step towards what appears to be an inevitable conclusion.
“Because a young athlete’s brain is still developing,” explains part of the discussion at pbs.org, “the effects of a concussion, or even many smaller hits over a season, can be far more detrimental, compared to head injury in an older player.”
There also was reference to a study conducted by Purdue University researchers who looked at the “cognitive impairment of high school football players.”
Professor Tom Talavage told Frontline: “By the end of the season we found that in 50 percent of the players (who) were brought in not concussed, we were detecting changes, either in their computer-based testing and/or in their functional MRI data, showing that something had changed in the way their brain was performing a particular set of simple tasks.”
Yes, the warning signs are everywhere.
And, if they aren’t already, the adults who make the rules under which children and teenagers play hockey need to sit up straight and pay attention.
Of everything I have read involving concussions and hockey, two paragraphs stand out above the rest. They were from a story written by The Globe and Mail’s Allan Maki following a chat with Dave Adolph, the head coach of the U of Saskatchewan Huskies hockey team.
“(Adolph) wonders, too,” wrote Maki, “why every hit now has to be so punishing, as if the intent is to hurt the opponent, especially if he’s in a vulnerable position.”
Maki then quoted Adolph: “There’s no more angling (off a puck carrier), especially in junior hockey. They’re trying to put someone out of the game. Before, kids would get their sticks up (as protection) and you’d see more high-sticking penalties. Now you see them get crushed and their heads ricochet off the glass.”
Adolph’s words should carry added weight in today’s game, and not only because he is a highly respected coach.
He also is the father of Max Adolph, a forward with the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets.
Max’s hockey career may be in jeopardy.
You guessed it.
He is struggling with post-concussion syndrome and played in only 36 games this season.
Adolph, who turned 18 on April 1, first was injured during a game in Portland on Oct. 30. He took a high, hard hit while he was on the cycle in the Winterhawks’ zone. He was back in the lineup Nov. 24, but left in January with a head injury. He came back early in February but didn’t feel right and left again two weeks later.
Adolph went home to Saskatoon last month for some family time. In one conversation with his father, the coach, a life message was delivered.
“I wanted to reassure him there’s more to life and that he’ll find something he enjoys doing (beyond hockey),” Dave Adolph told Maki. “We wanted to make sure he knows that.”
Max Adolph watched the Rockets’ playoff game from the stands in Kelowna on Wednesday night.
All young athletes should know that there is life after hockey, or whatever their chosen sport is, and that as you mature you shouldn’t have to wonder if you’ll be able to remember the date of your partner’s birthday as you grow old.
In a recent edition of the Vancouver Province, sports columnist Ed Willes wrote about Steven Rice, whose NHL career was cut short at the age of 27 after he had been through at least eight concussions.
These days, Rice told Willes, “I have very limited memories of my career.”
Steven Rice is 39 years of age.
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