While the Sacramento region increasingly produces standout athletes who earn scholarships and pursue NFL careers, the health of high school football in California and throughout the nation is in a state of flux, if not crisis.
The persistent onslaught of information – the troubling statistics about brain injuries and the personal stories revealing the long-term consequences – is having a chilling effect on one of the most dangerous and popular sport in America. Participation in high school football continues to drop, down 3 percent in each of the past two years in the state and 2.5 percent nationally.
It’s no longer debatable: Football can be a crippler, sometimes a killer.
Jim Plunkett recently gave a wrenching account of his physical ailments and apprehension about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) to The San Jose Mercury News. Jim McMahon continues to share details about his diminishing mental capacity. Dr. Bennet Omalu, who was portrayed by Will Smith in the 2015 film “Concussion,” suggested letting youngsters play tackle football is child abuse.
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Concerns about concussions and other brain injuries are discussed openly these days in the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) offices, locker rooms, living rooms and emergency rooms. The link between the violent colliding of bodies and brain injuries is now accepted as fact; the devastating study published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported 110 of 111 deceased NFL players whose brains were examined suffered from CTE.
The responses are all over the map. Some are calling for better equipment and medical supervision, along with more stringent protocols for recovery time. Others echo Omalu and believe kids should be directed to less dangerous sports, and more and more parents seem to agree. While the number of high school football players in California has declined, participation in cross country, track and field, volleyball, soccer, basketball and tennis increased in 2016.
“I have not seen any definitive data connecting the (declining participation) to the concussion issues,” CIF executive director Roger Blaker said, “but anybody with a sense of what’s going on nationally has to attribute it to that.”
Within the past few weeks, Nevada Union dropped its junior varsity program, citing low turnout. West Campus ended football completely, also citing poor numbers. In Marin County, one-time powerhouse Novato High petitioned the league to discontinue varsity football due to poor turnout, but reconsidered when the public outcry generated renewed interest. In Southern California, Cabrillo and Compton high schools abolished JV teams, similarly claiming there weren’t enough players to justify three levels (freshman and varsity).
But the real shocker was Long Beach Poly, which has won 19 CIF Southern Section titles, sent more than 60 players to the NFL and is ranked 10th in the nation by MaxPreps, giving up junior varsity. The ripple effect throughout the state is something like this: If Long Beach Poly is feeling the pinch, what does that mean for everyone else?
It’s time to think about what football means to the community, students and parents, and whether the danger outweighs the benefits.
Making a ‘violent’ sport safer
After reading about Plunkett’s decline, listening to bodies colliding violently while standing on the sidelines at Raiders and 49ers practices, and watching aging NFL players walk with limps, needing canes or the assistance of loved ones, and often with impaired memories, the temptation is to take a knee and impose the death penalty.
“You keep getting these reports, about the number of kids who are getting concussions, all the players who die so young from CTE, and it’s very troubling,” Grant High coach Mike Alberghini said. “Those numbers (participation) are dropping for a reason.”
While the elite programs at schools such as Jesuit, Folsom, Granite Bay and Elk Grove seem immune, at least for now, the JV numbers at Grant dropped to the low 30s, down from the 50-plus in previous years. Alberghini worries about the future of the storied Pacers program that transcends generations and has long been a unifying presence in the hard-scrabble Del Paso Heights neighborhood.
“Everything we’re hearing forces you to re-evaluate what you are doing,” he said, “and I think the mentality of coaching has changed, in a good way. It’s incumbent upon us to make our sport safer. You spend $500 or $600 on bags and other apparatus for form tackling, try to create drills, whatever you can to avoid head collisions. And if a kid needs a day off once in a while, you give him a day off.”
In the past two years, the CIF has adopted stricter policies for lengths of practices and protocols for treatment of concussions and brain injuries. Any player who experiences concussion symptoms must sit out eight days and be cleared by a neurologist before being allowed back on the field. Contact drills are only allowed twice a week for up to 90 minutes, and tackling above the shoulders is prohibited. Hits to the head result in a 15-yard penalty.
Area coaches also are adopting tackling techniques that were introduced by USA Football. John Heffernan, the longtime Burbank coach who has taken over at Elk Grove, spent part of the summer conducting clinics on health-related matters and emergency procedures and offering instruction on the new tackling schemes.
“Football is a violent, dangerous game,” said Heffernan, a master trainer for USA Football. “USA Football, USA Rugby and the Seattle Seahawks got together and came up with the best way to tackle, to get the head out of the game, and that’s with the shoulder. Shoulder tackling is designed to take the head completely out of tackling.”
As the CIF’s Blake acknowledged, not even the most expensive helmets prevent concussions.
“Helmets can’t stop your skull from being cracked or broken,” he said. “The brain inside your head is like an egg yoke. Shake that egg, even with a pad around it, and the egg is still hit, the yoke still bounces. A $12,000 helmet will not stop the yoke from bouncing. That’s a concussion. But what we can do is make sure the kids are sidelined long enough for the brain to recover, though we won’t know for a period of time, maybe a generation, whether these (guidelines) make a difference.”
‘There is a risk in everything’
San Juan High coach Greg Roezler is going a step further, working with Stanford professor Dr. Piya Sorcar on a study evaluating the willingness of players to come forward when they experience concussion symptoms. Sorcar and her staff plan to attend two or three practices this week.
“Concussions are a serious issue,” Roezler said, “and we will help them (Stanford) whenever we can. But this is not a football (program) killer. This is to accumulate data. There is risk in everything. There is a danger in riding a skateboard, playing lacrosse, and I believe there are life issues to be learned in football that you don’t get in any other sport.”
Asked if he would allow his son to play football, Roezler replied without hesitation, “Absolutely. Let him play.”
Roezler is in the majority, for now. But the studies, numbers, anecdotes and medical reports are becoming more grim every year. Check back and count the teams in a decade.
“I don’t think football is going away tomorrow,” Sac-Joaquin Section spokesman Will Deboard said, “but I don’t think all of the sudden we’re going to get a 10 percent increase in participation, either.”
Boys sports in California
Change since 2016
1. Football (11-player)
2. Track & Field
6. Cross Country
8. Swimming & Diving
Source: 2017 CIF Participation Census