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SIMMONS: Concussion report stands as cautionary tale for parents

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 30, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Two, sometimes three evenings a week, just down the block from my home, the sounds of intermittently blown whistles pierce the air, followed by either cheering or booing for the littlest of the little ones playing football.

Similar sounds can be heard throughout the D.C. region and indeed across the country this time of year, as pee-wee leagues count down toward their respective playoff rounds.

They are good times, for sure, but they can be dangerous, too — an alarm sounded quite loudly Wednesday with the release of "Sports-Related Concussion in Youth: Improving the Science, Changing the Culture."

The extensive report by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council looked at several youth sports — from women's basketball to men's lacrosse — played by a broad range of ages — from 5 to 21 years old.

Some of the findings can readily be placed in the common sense category. For example that "reported concussions rates are more frequent among high school athletes than college athletes in some sports," such as football.

Young people often think they are invincible; we always know they are not.

Yet other findings caution all adults to be more mindful of that old cheer, "Hit 'em again, harder, harder."

Particularly noteworthy were findings that concussion rates "appear higher for youths with a history of prior concussions and among female athletes" and that:

Women's collegiate ice hockey has the highest rate of reported concussions.

Overall, football, ice hockey, lacrosse, wrestling and soccer are associated with the highest rates of reported concussions for boys and men who play in high school and college.

For girls and women, soccer, lacrosse and basketball are associated with the highest rates of reported concussions at the high school and college levels.

When it comes to 19-and-under youths, the reported number of individuals treated in emergency rooms for concussions and other non-fatal, sports- and recreation-related traumatic brain injuries increased from 150,000 in 2001 to 250,000 in 2009.

Interestingly, that 2009 tally was long before the NFL tackled the New Orleans Saints for its illegitimate bounty fund, which paid players for clocking opponents (which used to be simply called "smash-mouth" football.)

The analysts also looked at military concussion instances as well, but I'm excluding them from this discussion because military personnel deal with extenuating circumstances that young athletes do not.

This is the perfect juncture to stress an obvious point that often is overlooked when the health and education are at stake, and that is this: Parents have to play offense and defense.

It is parents who have to thoroughly understand the "buyer beware" mantra, as a colleague put it.

Parents need not have played a sport to grasp the fact that physical contact sports — unlike, say, tennis or golf — call for assertive and aggressive role-playing, regardless of position.

So don't be too quick to blame the coach or a player.

The key is to speak with your child, her coaches and the sport itself before giving thumbs up or thumbs down. And that means you do so for no other reason than this:

The committee's reason found "little evidence that current sports helmet designs reduce the risk of concussions."

The analysts did stress that young athletes still be properly fitted for helmets, face masks and mouth guards and that they use them to reduce other potential injuries, such as skull fractures, bleeding and injuries to the eyes, face and mouth.

The new study was sponsored by a slew of organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Athletic Trainers' Association, National Academy of Sciences, National Institutes of Health, and the Departments of Defense and Education.

Robert Graham, director of the national program office for Aligning Forces for Quality at George Washington University, said considerable research is need to both curb and prevent injuries.

"There are numerous areas in which we need more and better data," he said. "Until we have that information, we urge parents, schools, athletic departments, and the public to examine carefully what we do know, as with any decision regarding risk, so they can make more informed decisions about young athletes playing sports."

Notice the first group on the list?

That's right: parents.

It's great to see budding a RGIII mimicking Ed Smith, the model for the Heisman Memorial Trophy, as he overruns a safety into the end zone for a game-winning TD.

But there are young wannabes following hard-hitting Oakland Raiders safety Charles Woodson out there, too.

And they both need the issue of youth concussions tackled by practically any sensible means necessary.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com

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