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Steinberg: Football, and other contact sports, need to be rethought

March 09, 2013

In previous columns, I suggested that the increased size, speed and strength of today's NFL players are creating a dramatically more damaging set of collisions.

We have known for years of the devastation these collisions cause on every joint in the human body. It has become crystal clear that the effects of blows to the head affect emotions, memory, reasoning — what it means to be human — in frightening ways. The ticking time bomb and undiagnosed health epidemic that is developing consists of the cumulative effects of millions of sub-concussive blows that are rarely recognized or treated.

The potential reticence of parents to allow their children to play football at all, combined with the legal and insurance liability highlighted in current lawsuits, poses a long-term threat to the game of football.

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David Epstein wrote recently on SI.com that new studies reveal the deleterious effect of low-level hits. Epstein highlighted studies from

the University of Rochester and Cleveland Clinic that showed elevated concentrations of the S100B protein in the blood streams of college football players who suffered subconcussive hits. This presence of this protein is an indicator of brain injury. Antibodies rush to reject the unwanted protein in the brain and can result in destructive penetration of the blood/brain barrier.

This occurred with players who were not knocked out. Last week I urged readers to contemplate the fact that an offensive or defensive lineman who plays in high school, college and pro football may suffer 10,000 of these subconcussive hits. It is time to take action to stem this damage. A damaged brain threatens the very essence of personality and consciousness.

The first area to explore is prevention. Can each collision sport have rules that minimize destructive hits and can we coach players from the day they enter sports to avoid dangerous practices? Collision is the essence of a sport like football; each play begins with massive bodies colliding. There is no way to have so many bodies in motion at such speed and not have collision.

We can do everything possible to coach and enforce rules that take the head and neck out of being the target or tool for blocking and tackling. Heading the ball in AYSO can result in lower test scores — it needs to be eliminated. Can playing surfaces be designed that have some give and flexibility on impact?

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