It’s one of a parent’s worst nightmares. Seeing your child lay motionless on the turf, ice or gym floor.
For most Bay Area residents, perhaps the most infamous occurrence of such a frightening sports injury is when San Francisco 49ers Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young saw his football career come to an end. In just the third game of the 1999 NFL season, Young’s 49ers were in Arizona. Young dropped back to pass and was hammered by a blitzing Cardinals safety. He then remained on the ground motionless.
One can imagine how it must have felt being his parents.
Young suffered several concussions throughout his NFL career. The one in Arizona was the final blow. According to an article from SF Gate’s Ann Killion in 2015, Young indicates that he remains in good health during his post-football career. Young may just be one of the lucky ones, many new developments in preventing and treating concussions have been made in the years since Young’s career ended.
Updated protocols in the treatment of concussions and advancements in research involving the associated degenerative brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) have rightfully brought head injuries to the forefront of safety discussions in sports. However, you could make the argument that football has unfairly received the lion’s share of attention.
The attention has inspired a bill proposal (first announced in February) from California legislators Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) and Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego). The bill, called the Safe Youth Football Act (https://a80.asmdc.org/press-releases/assemblymembers-mccarty-and-gonzalez-fletcher-announce-safe-youth-football-act) proposes a ban on tackle football prior to high school throughout California. Proponents of this bill argue that developing brains of young children are at a significantly greater risk for neurological impairment and the development of CTE.
Santa Clara Lions Pop Warner Head Coach Craig Connelly opposes this bill, but the longtime coach also refers to it as a needed wake-up call in the football community.
“I do think it’s misguided,” said Connelly. “It’s a wake-up call. It’s a wake-up call because the attitudes of youth coaches and some high school coaches still need to change. Their mentality of the game, a lot of coaches just haven’t gotten over what that was back in the day. In order to survive and be coaching for 50 years [like I have], you have to stay up to date with the new techniques. The old school coach is going to kill programs of youth football. There is no room for that old school coach anymore. We have to make sure we re-educate coaches.”
Youth football programs like the Santa Clara Lions point to medical studies which indicate there is no direct scientific link between youth football and CTE. These studies don’t take into consideration the long-term potential of being improperly taught how to tackle.
Wilcox High School Head Coach Paul Rosa concurs with Connelly that there remains an issue in youth football when it comes to aggressive coaches.
“The bad side of youth football is when you get the kind of coaches who are crazy or not going by the rules,” said Rosa. “The good side of it is when you have guys who know what they are doing. I think it’s actually beneficial. Kids who have already played a couple years come into high school and are way ahead of kids who haven’t played before. I think it’s actually safer to learn at a younger age because the game is not as fast. You are learning at a very slow speed. If you have ever have gone and watched a 10-year-old game, rarely do you see vicious big hits because they just don’t move that fast.”
Considering that CTE can only be diagnosed post-mortem, it is difficult to make a direct attempt at correlating CTE with youth football. If the brains being used for research are only those of former NFL players, pinpointing which level of football is most responsible for the CTE development can be difficult.
With concussion research ongoing and not fully understood, youth football does have a clear problem: improper teaching. Some say learning the fundamentals of any sport at a young age is analogous to learning a language. When trained at a young age to speak a certain way or to play a sport a certain way, those instincts tend to stay as players grow into adults. That is where the problem lies within youth football. Head injuries at younger levels aren’t as common, but the improper techniques taught to kids then become instinctual heading into adulthood. As players get older and faster, the potential for serious head injuries increases.
While lots of youth programs are properly adhering to the latest safety guidelines from USA Football’s “Head’s Up” program, the local Santa Clara coaches acknowledge that there are still some old school coaches who haven’t gotten the memo.
Would banning tackling at practice while wearing pads be a solution?
When it comes to teaching proper tackling techniques, Santa Clara Bruins Head Coach Hank Roberts says pads are not needed.
“If you need to teach someone how to tackle and you can’t do it the same way with pads on as with them off, then you are teaching the wrong thing. If you need your head to tackle, you’re stuck in the 80s and 90s and guess what? You’re going to lose players.”
Injuries are going to happen in sports. They are unavoidable. While football needs to continue to make the game safer, there are notable concussion concerns in other sports too and those sports aren’t getting the same attention.
Dr. Anthony Saglimbeni, founder of South Bay Sports and Preventive Medicine Associates, serves as the physician for the San Francisco Giants, San Francisco 49ers, Santa Clara University, Bellarmine College Preparatory and Presentation High School.
“Concussions are kind of an injury that nobody truly understands yet,” remarked Dr. Saglimbeni. “They happen with more predictability in contact sports, but sometimes there are other ways to get a concussion that have tougher recoveries than those from contact sports. Football is certainly always among the highest risk sports. Other sports though that are right up there are women’s soccer and both women’s and men’s ice hockey in terms of concussions per exposure.”
Regardless of how one feels regarding this proposed bill, something everyone can agree on is that it helps shed light on an issue that must continue to be illuminated.
For more information visit www.sclionsfootball.org.