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Zirpoli: Better to fund football safety study than turf fields

As the county considers spending a half-million dollars for an artificial turf located at the former North Carroll High School, researchers are finding that football is causing significant, life-long damage to the brains of our children. While this may not sit well with the adults and kids participating in youth football leagues, especially those who love high school and college football, the results of these studies leave little doubt about the consequences for players of all ages.

Previous research has focused on brain damage among professional football players. For example, Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist and director of the Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) Center at Boston University, published a study of 202 deceased football players in The Journal of the American Medical Association. Of the 111 NFL players in her study, 110 had CTE, a degenerative brain disease tied to repeated blows to the head. While many other studies of CTE focused on linemen, who have contact on almost every play, McKee's study looked at every position in the game, even punters and place kickers, and found similar results.

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McKee took extensive images of the players' brains to show the cumulative physical damage to the brain these players sustained. Symptoms of CTE, which can only be definitively diagnosed during an autopsy, include memory loss, depression and dementia.

While McKee has focused on adult players, new studies are looking at the impact on young players. Another recent study out of Boston University CTE Center and published in Nature's Translational Psychiatry, looked at the impact of tackle football in young children. What they found was disturbing. Because these subjects were young and still alive, brain studies for CTE could not be completed. What these researchers did look at, however, was behavior and other mental health variables. Their study found a significant "association between participation in youth tackle football before the age of 12 and impaired mood and behavior later in life." These symptoms included a two-fold risk for behavioral problems and a three-fold risk for depression for the subjects that participated in tackle football before the age of 12 years.

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The Boston University study looked at 214 former football players with an average age of 51 years. They were given a battery of cognitive and mental health assessments. Researchers then compared the results from those who started playing tackle football before the age of 12 and those players who started playing at age 12 or after. Researchers used age 12 as a cutoff "because the brain undergoes a key period of development and maturation between the years 10-12 in males."

This study supports prior findings by Dr. Michael Alosco of Boston University School of Medicine showing that NFL players who started tackle football prior to the age of 12 had worse memory and structural brain changes (identified on MRI scans) compared to NFL players who began playing at age 12 or older.

Another study published in the journal Radiology found that children playing tackle football did not need to suffer from a concussion to show measurable brain changes. Dr. Christopher Whitlow, associate professor and chief of neuroradiology at Wake Forest School of Medicine, looked at 25 male football players ages 8 to 13 years. Using helmet sensors, he measured the frequency and severity of helmet impacts. He looked at "pre- and post-season" neuroimaging with "an advanced MRI technique." The results "showed a significant relationship between head impacts" and a change in brain structure and function. Whitlow wrote that "young players who experienced more cumulative head impact exposure had more changes in brain white matter" similar to what one would see in mild traumatic brain injury (TBI). Importantly, Whitlow found that none of these kids suffered concussions.

The NFL has the billions of dollars necessary to deal with the medical implications and long-term care of their players as they age and suffer the long-term consequences of professional football. I wonder, however, how local community football leagues, high schools and colleges will deal with these liabilities if the research continues to demonstrate that the relationship between football and brain injury starts with them?

There are many things that we can do to make football safer for our children. Perhaps the county would consider using that $500,000 to study how to make the sport safer, purchase better equipment, and increase training for coaches and players. While we all love football, as adults, we have a greater love and responsibility for our children's health and well-being.

Plans for the first turf athletic field in the county are underway.

Artificial turf is now the norm across Maryland. It's past time for Carroll County to begin installing turf fields, as neighboring counties have.



Tom Zirpoli writes from Westminster. He is program coordinator of the human services management graduate program at McDaniel College. His column appears Wednesdays. Email him at tzirpoli@mcdaniel.edu.

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