After reading with interest the recent guest opinion in the Voice by Mountain View High athletic director and head football coach Shelley Smith, I felt it was imperative to comment on the promotion of tackle football at Mountain View High School. Athletic participation in high school has many benefits, but should be weighed against the risk of lasting injury, specifically in reference to football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
First, we know that football causes brain injury and kids who play football are at a disproportionate risk for brain trauma. A recent study by Boston University showed 87 percent of the brains of deceased football players showed CTE, including the brains of young adults who had only played high school football. One study found CTE in 99 percent of the NFL players' brains but also in three of the fourteen brains from former high school players (CTE can only be shown postmortem.)
Second, improved football helmets will not eliminate the significant risk of brain injury. Shelley Smith's position that new Riddell helmets will ameliorate the risk of brain injury is contradicted by the warning sticker that Riddell itself puts on the helmets. The warning includes the statement in all caps that, "No helmet can prevent serious head or neck injuries a player might receive while participating in football," as well as stating that, "Contact in football may result in concussion brain injury which no helmet can prevent." Shelley Smith may think the Riddell helmets can prevent head injury, but clearly Riddell's lawyers know otherwise.
Moreover, the real risk comes from multiple hits that don't cause concussions. A typical hit in football is the equivalent of a 30 mph car crash and a player might register anywhere from 250 to 580 crashes a season. A study from Wake Forest University showed that just these routine hits cause changes in the brain's white matter even without the player suffering a concussion. A Boston University study, published in Brain, used postmortem examination of teenage football players to show that early CTE could result from damaged blood vessels in the brain from repetitive head impacts without a concussion.
Third, the author's suggestion that improved tackling techniques will prevent head injury has been conclusively debunked. The NFL's "Heads Up Football" program to teach proper tackling was shown by the New York Times to have no demonstrable effect on injuries overall (Alan Schwartz, "N.F.L.-Backed Youth Program Says It Reduced Concussions. The Data Disagrees," New York Times, July 27, 2016). The primary reason for this is that the head and neck muscles of youths are nowhere as developed as the professional athletes who play for the Seattle Seahawks, who developed the program cited by the author. A young child's head-to-body size ratio can be four times larger than an adult's; combined with a thinner, weaker neck means an impact to the head causes more rapid head movements.
The medical evidence that football causes significant damage to our teenagers is overwhelming. The ongoing scientific debate as to the nature and extent of that damage should not be used to justify continuing to allow this damage to happen. It would be prudent to counsel to stop this activity until it can be proven that football can be played safely without inflicting lasting damage on our children -- not the other way around.
Sadly, given the attitudes of our school officials, this public health crisis will likely not be resolved until the costs of litigation and damage awards create crippling liabilities. I urge parents, the Mountain View Los Altos High School District Board of Trustees, and Superintendent Jeff Harding each to consider their responsibility for the future health and welfare of the students at Mountain View High School.
Sarah Eitzman is a retired pediatrician and resident of Mountain View.