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Chris Borland

In this March 1, 2018, Chris Borland, a former NFL linebacker and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year for the University of Wisconsin, testifies before a Illinois House Mental Health Committee hearing about high-impact sports.

For many in Wisconsin the start of the new football season is a joyous time. The professionals will open training camp, and soon after both college and high school athletes will be fitted for helmets and pads.

For some, however, the excitement of the football season has been dampened by the specter of concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). It seems every week we learn of a new football star now suffering after too many blows to the head, and earlier this year Packers legend Brett Favre proclaimed brain injury risks made tackle football too dangerous for kids under the age of 14.

At the Brain Injury Alliance of Wisconsin we frequently get asked about the wisdom of kids playing football. These questions are tough to answer. On the one hand, sports, like any group activity, provide tremendous benefits to kids. Not only that, sports are fun!

On the other hand, the first time you meet someone who has had his life upended by a football concussion — and I’ve met several — you can’t help but ask why anyone would suit up and play.

So what is a parent to do? Let the kids play or not?

At the BIAW, we are not anti-football, but we do want everyone to know some basic facts before deciding if the rewards of playing football or any collision sport outweigh the risks.

Here are the most common questions about concussions and football that we at BIAW hear:

Will new helmet technology prevent a concussion?

No. To understand why, you need to know how concussions happen.

While a blow to the head begins the process of getting a concussion, the damage is done when the brain bounces around inside the skull in reaction to the external blow. Think of how gelatin jiggles and you will have a good idea of what happens to your brain after a collision.

The shell of a helmet is designed to prevent things like skull fractures, and padding inside may lessen the impact of a blow to the head, but even the best helmets can’t keep your brain from rattling around inside your skull.

Will learning better tackling techniques prevent a concussion?

Better tackling techniques are intended to curtail head-first contact in football, which is a good idea, but even the best training can’t protect a player from an accident. There are still bodies flying around at high speeds, and heads are bound to collide with another head, a knee, or, as is the case with most concussed football players I know, the ground.

Does a single concussion end an athlete’s career?

Not necessarily. Statistically, over 80 percent of people who experience a concussion will recover completely with proper treatment. This fact should not inspire false hope, however, because the remaining 20 percent can experience life-altering ramifications from even a single concussion.

What is CTE and how is it different from a concussion?

A concussion is an injury to the brain usually caused by a blow or blows to the head over a short period of time. For example, a person who falls down the stairs and hits her head might get a concussion.

We are still learning about CTE, but we know it results from tau proteins that form clumps in the brain. These clumps slowly kill brain cells. The tau clumps appear to be caused by repetitive hits to the head over time. These repetitive hits do not have to be hard enough to cause a concussion. As an illustration, it has been discovered that woodpeckers develop tau buildup from constantly pecking trees.

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Of the two, a concussion is likely the more immediate danger to a youth or high school football player, though this may change as we do more CTE research. As awareness increases, we are finding more and more former professional and college football players showing signs of CTE.

Aren’t other sports dangerous, too?

Yes, sports such as hockey and soccer are also coming under scrutiny for the concussion risk involved, but due to the nature of the game and the number of players on the field at one time, football players are the most at risk for a concussion.

Well, should I let my kid play?

It is up to you.

Keep in mind most kids play football without incident in the same way most people play the lottery without winning. For the lucky lottery winners or the unlucky concussion losers, the results can be life-altering. A severe concussion can affect one’s personality, cognitive abilities, and earning potential. Is it worth the risk?

One thing is certain. If you know someone who does get a concussion, whether it be on the football field or elsewhere, be smart. Get medical attention and follow the doctor’s advice.

You only have one brain, and it needs to work well for the rest of your life.

Karl Curtis is executive director of the Brain Injury Alliance of Wisconsin, located in Madison. The Brain Injury Alliance of Wisconsin is a non-profit organization serving the state’s brain injury community since 1980. Its mission is the prevention of brain injury and the full participation in life for individuals with brain injury. For more information visit BIAW.org.

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