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Chris Peterson Column: Alarming CTE studies mean youth, high school football needs to be safer, now


Havre Daily News/Colin Thompson

More and more studies are showing that head injuries in football, even at the high school level, are leading to permanent CTE.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I love football. It's my favorite sport, heck, it's one of my favorite things.

But as much as I love the game, I know that it needs to change.

And it needs to change now.

It's no secret that over the last few years, we have started to realize just how dangerous football can be. The discovery of CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and its prevalence in football players has been disturbing to say the least and a study published earlier this week isn't any more encouraging.

If you aren't familiar with it, here are the basics: A neuropathologist examined the brains of 202 deceased football players. At least 111 of them played in the NFL, and 110 of those (99 percent) had CTE. Of the 91 former college and high school football players who were studied, 72 percent of them were found to have CTE, including three of the 14 high schoolers.

As a disclaimer, the percentages of the study are likely inflated. Many of the players studied exhibited symptoms of having CTE previously. But still, the numbers are significant and it has got me thinking, that even at the high school level, things need to change.

The problem of course is that no matter what is done, no matter what rules are changed or how good the equipment becomes, football players are going to get hurt. They are going to sustain head injuries. It's simply the nature of the beast. However, that doesn't mean we shouldn't do everything possible to limit hits, particularly those that are the most violent.

Now, I have never played in the NFL, or in college, but I did play football for the Blue Ponies. I was an offensive lineman and I can tell you, it didn't surprise me at all to see that linemen suffer more concussions than any other position group. And it's not just that there are more of them, it's the fact that they are colliding with an opponent on every single play.

Certainly, there isn't helmet-to-helmet contact on every play, but there is no question that linemen, on both sides of the ball, are constantly sustaining blows to the head and doing so at a much higher rate than other players.

Yet, as dangerous as the play-by-play toll of being in the trenches can be, there is still no play that puts players at risk more than the kickoff.

There have been studies done that assert that more injuries happen on kickoffs, than on any other play. And after playing the sport and being both part of the wedge, as well as a wedge buster, I'm confident it's true.

For those who don't know, the wedge is a group of players that forms a sort of wall on kickoffs. Essentially, these players run 10-20 yards backward, converge and then the kick returner follows their blocks, while defenders (wedge busters) smash into the wall and try to break it up, allowing a player to tackle the ball carrier. There are different ways of running a kickoff return, but that's common. Another way is giving each player an opponent they are assigned to block. But even that method can lead to some big collisions.

One thing you have to realize, is that when you are setting up that wedge, you are running away from the other team, stopping and turning around, while they are running at you full speed. Sure, you are going to try and hit people with your shoulder, but many times, I remember the hits being helmet-to-helmet and the collisions being quite forceful. I also remember jogging back to the huddle feeling dizzy, disoriented or woozy. But for some reason, we didn't really take it seriously. We joked about the big hits we took and laughed them off without thinking twice.

What I found amusing then, is frightening now. And now, admittedly, I find myself worrying about the young men playing football on Friday nights.

There is no question more studies need to be done to understand how often CTE is occurring in high school players, but there is also no doubt, that three of 14 or 21.4 percent, is alarming in its own right. That's one in five high school players and if those numbers prove in the long run to be accurate, a big if, it will definitely be eye opening.

Yet, as risky as it can potentially be, I am not here to tell football players they shouldn't play football. I believe the opposite in fact. High school football was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life and truthfully, I learned lessons that I still carry with me through everyday life.

Football is a great thing, but we are lying to ourselves if we don't admit that it can also be barbaric.

Like boxing, it's a sport that rewards controlled violence and that's an element that will never be taken out of the game, unless the NFL someday decides to trade helmets for flags, something I don't see happening anytime soon.

While the problem is a difficult one to tackle, one immediate solution is eliminating the kickoff - for good.

When the NFL adjusted its rules to reduce kickoffs, concussions went down and if it was eliminated completely, they probably would be reduced even more.

Kickoff returns can admittedly be some of the most exciting plays in the sport, but we have to ask ourselves, are they worth the risk?

My answers is no and I would like nothing better than to see the Montana High School Association ban them immediately. Give teams the ball at their own 30-yard line and let's play ball.

Some may scoff at the idea or say that it changes the game too much and that's a perspective that I can appreciate. But on the other hand, football needs to be made safer and as much as I'd hate to see them go, eliminating kickoffs is a cost-effective and fool-proof way to do it.


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