The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

March 20, 2014

Young athletes face alarming risk of head injuries

Tom Lindley
CNHI News Service

— Youth sports teams – of boys and girls – face a growing problem. More young athletes are being treated for head injuries, justifiably creating a growing concern among worried parents.

Their fear is compounded by a lack of reliable data and the reluctance of some young athletes to report injuries, fearing they would let down their teammates if they did.

Those are just a few observations from a report issued by the Institute of Medicine's Committee on Sports-Related Concussions in Youth. Its chairman, Robert Graham, said “more and better data” are needed to understand what’s happening and how to make sports safer.

In recent years press reports focused on professional football players suffering concussions following violent collisions. Those concerns have led to questions about the impact of repeated blows felt by boys and girls from the earliest youth leagues through high school.

This much is clear: The public is taking notice, and participation is being affected. The number of young people playing Pop Warner football, for instance, showed a 9.5 percent drop between 2010-12, some 23,612 kids. Some say the steep reduction could be traced to a trend of young athletes specializing in one sport, while others blame a fear of head injuries, especially among parents.

Female athletes appear no less immune to serious sports injury. Last year's report from the committee on concussions said soccer, lacrosse and basketball are linked to the highest rates of concussions among high school and college girls.

At a recent U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee hearing, it was even suggested that the youngest athletes should not play contact sports before age 15, the time when most students enter high school.

A compilation of statistics by the Southwest Athletic Trainers Association is alarming. It shows:

Part of these trends could be explained by the growing popularity of travel team sports – basketball, baseball, softball, volleyball, lacrosse and soccer – across the country.

For many kids, participation in a tournament schedule of high-level play continues throughout the year, thereby increasing the likelihood of injuries.

In its report, the Committee on Sports-Related Concussions called for an examination of “what’s known and what’s not” about young people and their sports. It called on organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health, NCAA and National Federation of State High School Associations to coordinate study of sports and produce a list of recommendations.

The committee favors:

No doubt, research of this magnitude will take a long time to conduct and analyze. There’s also the possibility the results could be troubling, especially to traditionalists who think injuries are just part of the game.

Then again, this research might help someone like Olympic gold medalist Briana Scurry, a goalie on the U.S. soccer team, avert head injuries like the one she suffered during a match two years ago. It left her with severe headaches, disrupted sleep, anxiety and depression.

It’s fine to encourage boys and girls to compete. It seems only fair that they also understand the risks that are involved in those activities.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.