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Saving a sport we love

Friday night lights — and football's dark side

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Posted: Saturday, September 15, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 6:50 am, Sat Sep 15, 2012.

On Friday nights, the big lights are glowing again at the Grape Bowl.

We celebrate football in Lodi and across the country.

Check that. We don't just celebrate football.

We glorify it. We revere it.

We love it.

But there's a dark side to football, and it has to do with head trauma.

An estimated 13,000 boys are playing football this season in the Sac-Joaquin Section, which includes Lodi and Galt schools. Nationwide, nearly 1.1 million high school boys are on the gridiron this fall.

That means many millions of collisions — and many, many young brains at risk.

Lodi's Dr. Bennet I. Omalu is chief medical examiner for San Joaquin County. He's also a pioneer in the field of studying brain trauma and football.

His assessment is as blunt as a helmet planted squarely in the numbers: "Football causes brain damage. Anyone who denies that is not being honest."

He cautions that high school football players will suffer about 4,000 blows to the head during their career, including both practice and games. Add another 4,000 blows for those playing college football.

Those aren't concussions, Omalu says, but they don't have to be to cause damage. When it comes to football and brain injury, Omalu said, it is not just about concussions, but the totality of trauma inflicted over time.

He also points out that blows to a young, developing brain can be especially pernicious.

That's all, well, rather bleak.

Yet millions of American men and boys have played football without suffering concussions or significant brain damage.

Football is embedded in our cultural DNA. It a unique blend of power, speed, teamwork and drama.

So here is the question: How can we preserve the game we love while reducing the brain damage we abhor?

First, it will take a cultural change, and that's happening.

Football is still a slurry of sweat, blood and grit. But so is car racing, and racing has become far safer over the past 30 years, thanks to courageous figures like Sir Jackie Stewart.

Stewart, known as "The Flying Scot," was the hottest driver of his era. Yet he abruptly retired from racing at age 34 after his teammate Francois Cevert was killed in a race. Stewart, who had barely avoided a fatal accident himself, has devoted his career to making Formula 1 racing safer.

Many claimed Stewart was draining the romance — and daring — out of the sport. The less diplomatic called Stewart gutless. Still, he persevered. He introduced full-face helmets and better seatbelts. He helped develop a medical response unit and campaigned for safety barriers to protect drivers and spectators.

By staying involved, staying innovative and staying outspoken, Jackie Stewart saved lives.

The same is happening in football.

When we suited up on Friday nights many years ago, concussions were largely dismissed.

"Just got his bell rung," a coach would often say. That player, once the fog had cleared a bit, would often pull his helmet back on and get back to the action.

No longer.

Now, parents of California high school football players must sign a "concussion information fact sheet." It explains symptoms of concussions and urges parents how and when to seek medical help.

The California Interscholastic Federation, in fact, requires coaches to immediately yank anyone from a game who is suspected of suffering a concussion. That player can't return until he or she has been cleared by a health care provider.

The CIF's mantra: "When in doubt, the athlete sits out."

The NFL, of course, is adopting new rules cracking down on those who deliver blows to the head. The league has much at stake here. It faces a lawsuit from 3,000 former players who claim the league failed to warn them about the dangers of head trauma. It also faces growing evidence that repeated blows to the helmet add up to impairment later in life.

Just as car racing's cultural shift can help football deal with head trauma, so can its technical savvy.

A new, lightweight and ultra-cushioning helmet is being tested by some NFL players.

The helmet designer is Bill Simpson, an IndyCar legend known as "The Godfather of Safety." Simpson worked with several NFL players, including Jeff Saturday of the Green Bay Packers, in developing the headgear.

So far, no player wearing one of these helmets has suffered a concussion.

Is enough being done? No. This is, as they say, a monumental work in progress. New databases are needed to track injuries, all the way down to the Pop Warner leagues. Better medical protocols are needed. (For instance, no physician is required to be in attendance at CIF regular season games, and the physician who is there, typically as a volunteer, need not have any special neurological training.)

The quest for safer, more sophisticated equipment and even playing surfaces has to accelerate.

But from the Grape Bowl to the Super Bowl, there is a new awareness, a new resolve.

Ignorance disguised as machismo is giving way to this realization: Whether parent, player, coach or fan, we must all be part of changing football.

Or risk losing the sport we love.

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