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10.28.09

Football's Bloodiest Secret

Brain damage, paralysis, testicles amputated. The NFL is investigating concussions and other serious injuries, but Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger says the real horror stories are on the high school field.

Many miles have passed in my life since I did the research for Friday Night Lights 21 years ago. At a certain point, an author should simply forget and move on. But the book continues to sell and the television show of the same name premiered its fourth season this week on DirecTV. The power of what I saw and what I heard still gets to me, and of all the interviews I did, the one that lingers the most took place in the living room of my rented ranch house in the dusty isolation of Odessa, Texas.

The man I interviewed was named Brad Allen. He was the former head of the high school booster club I was writing about, and I wanted to get some observations on why high school football had become so dominant in the culture of Odessa. I thought he would refer to the usual pop-psychology suspects—the town’s hermetic location in West Texas, the lack of anything substantive to do except work and drink, the paucity of good strip clubs, the boom-and-bust cycle of the oil field economy where nothing was ever certain.

Today at the age of 21, one player lives with his parents, spends most of his time in a wheelchair, and struggles with short-term memory.

The conversation started that way. But then it veered toward the experience of his own son, Phillip. Allen was the first to admit that Phillip was not a gifted athlete, but what he lacked in skill he made up for in toughness. To prove the point, Allen told the story of when Phillip broke his arm at the beginning of a high school football game. Rather than come out, Phillip continued to play. It was only at half time, when his arm had swelled so badly that his forearm pads had to be cut off of his body, that he reluctantly went to the hospital.

Allen said he was not proud of the incident, but he told the story freely. What it signified was obvious: the machismo inherent to youth sports that parents crave. Football. Soccer. Baseball. Basketball. Hockey. The sport doesn’t matter. The gender doesn’t matter. What matters most is the vicarious thrill dad and mom get from their sons and daughters showing fearlessness and the absorption of agony in a tradition linking back to the war heroes of Sparta. No amount of studies and medical warnings are going to fully extinguish the attitude that playing hurt is all part of the price.

Yesterday, the House Judiciary Committee began hearings on the issue of brain injuries suffered in pro football. It followed a recent study commissioned by the National Football League showing that memory-related diseases have ostensibly occurred in pro players at a rate far exceeding that of the national population—19 times the normal rate for men ages 30 for 49. It was only through the superb work of New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz that the issue rose to the forefront at all. And almost as soon as the study was released, NFL officials tried to discredit it as inaccurate.

Mark Hyman, an expert on injuries in youth sports, feels that any awareness of the problem, regardless of the NFL’s utterly self-protective stance, is a good thing. Because of the intense public pressure, there is the real possibility of changes not simply at the pro level, but all the way down the line to high school and pre-high school sports. But if past history is prologue, which it usually is (see successful conquests of Afghanistan) the changes will still be at the edges. The macho culture of sports is just too deeply embedded to be fully eradicated.

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In his book Until it Hurts, Hyman points out that 3.5 million children under the age of 15 needed medical treatment for sport injuries each year, nearly half of which were the result of simple overuse. “Over the last 75 years, adults have staged a hostile takeover of kids’ sports,” he wrote. “The quest to turn children into tomorrow’s superstar athletes has often led adults to push them beyond physical and emotional limits.” Backs go out and young athletes continue to compete until somebody finally realizes that the ailment isn’t some strain but a herniated disk and a stress fracture. High school football players have gotten concussions, been declared ready to play the following week, then suffered a far more serious second concussion.

In Odessa, a player once lost a testicle after no one bothered to thoroughly examine a groin injury he had received. It wasn’t until the testicle swelled to the size of a grapefruit that he went to the emergency room. By then it was too late—the testicle had to be removed. In another instance during the Texas high school football playoffs, where all sanity goes on hiatus, an Odessa player was already suffering from a painful hip. Since he was a star going both ways, the answer was to inject him with painkillers before the game and at halftime. A hole developed, which had actually been caused by a breaking of a band of cartilage at the front of his hip joint. It had also become infected, and the player after the season had to go the hospital for six months for treatments, including scraping out the infected tissue and iodine baths.

“We go insane worrying if our kids pedal down the driveway on their bikes without a helmet,” says Hyman, but then allow them to clobber each other on the field until they’re seriously hurt. The NFL has actually worked to build a better protective helmet. But the pace of innovation is still too slow, according to Hyman, because looking sleek and assassin-like is more important than staving off a head injury. In hockey, former NHL great Mark Messier teamed up with a sports-equipment maker to create a helmet that cuts down on blows to the brain by 26 percent, says Hyman. The number of NHL players who are using it this season? Eight—because they don’t like the shape. Were substantial changes being made at the pro level, they would probably trickle down to college, high school, and youth teams. But they’re not, even though 10 to 20 percent of teen hockey players suffer a concussion each year.

Young athletes are far more vulnerable to head injuries than older ones. Just ask Cody Lehe, who in the typical tradition of football suffered a concussion in a helmet-to-helmet hit during a game. He complained of headaches the following week, but he was able return to practice on the basis of a brain scan. He suddenly collapsed the next game after a relatively mild hit to the helmet. He suffered what doctors described as a “second-impact concussion,” according to a story by Dann Denny of the Herald-Times of Bloomington, Indiana. Lehe’s second concussion took place before the symptoms of the first one had subsided, and his brain swelled rapidly. He was in a coma for three weeks. Today at the age of 21, he lives with his parents, spends most of his time in a wheelchair, and struggles with short-term memory.

Youth sports will continue to be the most vulnerable—Pop Warner football leagues, travelling soccer and basketball leagues. None of these teams routinely have a doctor or a professional trainer as part of the staff. It is a coach who will generally make the call, and don’t be fooled: these coaches, woefully inexperienced, still want to win every bit as badly as their brethren in the high school, college, and pro ranks. Which means if an injury occurs, the seriousness of which cannot be immediately gauged, the coach will tell the player to shrug it off and stop being a pussy. He will undoubtedly invoke some idiotic Knute Rockne aphorism—“When the going gets tough, the tough get going!”—and parents will be right behind them, pulling their sons and daughters back into the game and implying they are weaklings if they complain. Serious injuries will continue to go undiscovered, and even when they are, too many kids will be pushed to return too soon. Some of these injuries will be excruciatingly painful down the road, some of them will be so debilitating as to ruin careers, and a few of them will even be fatal.

Because that’s what too many sports are in America, whatever the age level—violent, dedicated solely to winning regardless of risk, and irresponsibly dangerous. Which is just the way we like it.

Buzz Bissinger is the author of the New York Times number one bestseller Friday Night Lights. His most recent book, Shooting Stars, was co-authored with LeBron James.