Parents, put your fears aside — let kids play football 

“Let them play.”

No, this is not a testimonial for the National Football League Players’ Association, which produced a Super Bowl commercial in which players and fans united to urge NFL owners not to lock the players out on March 3.

“Let them play” is a plea to mothers across America, urging them not to lock their sons out of youth football programs due to over-reactionary fears of concussions and brain injuries.

Let them play.

A recent episode of ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” shined a spotlight on concussions sustained by kids in contact sports, and the effects they may have on them later in life. The segment also featured the story of former NFL player Tom McHale, who died of a drug overdose after becoming addicted to painkillers used to soothe his aching joints after a nine-year professional career. An autopsy revealed a form of brain damage called CTE, caused by chronic trauma to the brain. McHale’s wife, Lisa, believes this brain damage is what led to her husband’s addiction, which ultimately took his life.

McHale had coached his two young sons, who dreamed of playing in the NFL like their dad, before he died. Now, his widow will not allow either of them to play football. Her opposition to youth football is mirrored by worried mothers around the nation, especially when statistics show a growing number of brain injuries, or concussions, being sustained by kids involved in youth contact sports.

A 2001-2005 study of roughly 250,000 sports-related concussions sustained by 8 to 19-year-olds revealed that 40 percent of those concussions involved children between the ages of 8 and 13. Football and ice hockey were responsible for the majority of those injuries, with snow-skiing, bicycling and playground games also to blame. Of special concern is that team-sport related concussions reportedly doubled from 1997 to 2007.

“Let them play,” you ask?

Yes. Let them play.

What the statistics do not show is how many of the concussions suffered by young football players are the result of poor technique, poor coaching, improper equipment and a lack of trust between players, parents and coaches. The statistics don’t show that when kids are coached to hit — whether blocking, tackling or running with the ball — with their heads up, their risk of concussion or other brain injury is dramatically reduced.

The statistics don’t show that when coaches take the time to ensure that players’ helmets are fitted properly, and that when players are honest with their coaches about how they feel after hard hits, the risk of concussion is reduced even further.

Steps are constantly being taken to protect young players from the injuries that parents fear the most. The Cleveland Clinic’s Spine Research Laboratory and Department of Neurosurgery recently received a healthy grant from NFL Charities to study how helmets can be redesigned to best suit youths, rather than using what are merely scaled-down versions of adult helmets.

And last year, Pop Warner — the largest youth football organization in the nation — instituted rules requiring written clearance from a physician before any player who’s suffered a head injury is allowed back onto the field.

The requirement takes all the pressure off coaches, who may be tempted to put a willing player back in the game after “getting his bell rung.” No note, no play.

Every parent of a young athlete should be concerned about their child’s safety, but any movement toward keeping kids out of sports they love simply because of the potential for injury is misguided.

A child may potentially hit a crack in the sidewalk and smack his head on the curb while riding his bike, right? But we don’t take his bike away because that possibility exists. Rather, we require him to wear his protective helmet, we teach him the proper techniques for riding safely and we let him ride.

Youth football is no different. We don’t take away a boy’s game because the possibility of injury exists. Rather, we require protective equipment, we provide effective coaching to teach proper techniques for playing safely, and — that’s right — we let them play.

Bob Frantz is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Examiner. E-mail him at bfrantz@sfexaminer.com.

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