PBS ‘NewsHour’ and Others Need to Get Past the ‘Filtered Cigarette’ Stage of Youth Football Helmet Technology and Hit Meters

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Tonight PBS’s NewsHour has a valuable backgrounder on impact telemetry in youth football. The report by Stone Phillips covers technology and data developed by researchers at Wake Forest and Virginia Tech Universities. The video is already up at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2012/03/pint-size-football-players-take-big-league-hits.html.

To its credit, NewsHour presents the information soberly and without pornographically titillating footage of thunderous collisions between little squirts. Indeed, the damage caused by routine violence is the very point.

Still, I label this a “backgrounder” because, in my view, Phillips and other journalists like him remain behind the public-policy curve. For one thing, they discuss concussions in a vacuum: unless I missed it, not once in tonight’s story is there a reference to chronic traumatic encephalopathy. No 2012 concussion story should fail to note that the evidence on CTE is showing that long-term brain damage is cumulative and can result from purely subconcussive blows. So the problem at hand is not all about discretely identified traumatic brain injury episodes and the return-to-play decisions flowing from them.

And once you grasp that, you can further see that researching football TBI to a statistical vanishing point gets redundant and deadly. In addition to being expensive and impractical, newfangled helmets and hit counts and measurements – football and American ingenuity’s answer to the better mousetrap – become the equivalent of filtered cigarettes. For my money, this “saving football from itself” phase is lasting way too long when we’re talking about the health and lives of children. Our society already appreciates that no one should smoke until they’re old enough to decide for themselves.

On the plus side of the ledger, NewsHour does underscore two important points about youth head trauma. Kids tend to recover from concussions more quickly than adults, but since this relates to the fact that their brains are still growing, that is not entirely a good thing. (I have pounded Houston’s Dr. Howard Derman for his irresponsibility in suggesting otherwise.) Also – as former National Football League strength coach Kim Wood and others point out, and as the PBS report notes – youngsters’ heads have a “bobblehead” quality because the neck muscles undergirding them have not been developed and strengthened before they engage in full-body contact.

I look forward to Phillips’ promised live online chat Tuesday. Let’s hope it gets past the whiz-bang biomechanics of Pop Warner football and starts galvanizing actionable conclusions.


Irv Muchnick

Information on the Concussion Inc. ebook series is at https://concussioninc.net/?page_id=4925.

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Concussion Inc. - Author Irvin Muchnick