High School sports
It seems like every week there is another headline story on sports concussions. The latest news had to do with a study conducted at Boston University. On Monday, the Boston Globe dedicated most of their front page to the results of the study. Later in the day it was all over network news. Basically, the researchers confirmed what many of us already believed to be true: Concussions cause brain damage – and brain damage causes all kinds of problems for years to come.
The study was based on the autopsies of 85 brain donors, most of the them professional athletes. Without getting too scientific, we learned more about the Alzheimer's-like symptoms that are caused by blows to the head. We discovered more about how concussions cause the destruction of brain cells, and can lead to death. What resonated most for me about the story was a remark made by the study's leader Dr. Anne McKee during a network news interview. "Would you allow your own son to play football now that we know the results of your study?" was the reporter's question.
Dr. McKee's answer was, "I would have to think very seriously about that."
I give credit to McKee for not blurting out a straight "no." Any parent with a kid that plays sports knows it's not that easy. Concussions happen in football and hockey. They also happen in non-helmet sports like soccer and basketball. They happen in cheerleading, diving, and figure skating, too.
We have come a long way in awareness, that is for sure. Ten years ago when my son started Pop Warner, our biggest worry as parents was not head injury. Our biggest concern at the time was how our son would manage playing in two hockey leagues and football at the same time. He still had homework to do after all.
As it turned out, our son dropped football after less than three weeks of practice. He was a 90-pound ten-year-old playing against kids that could weigh up to 140 pounds. He was getting killed out there – and had the welts on his arms and legs to prove it. My sister, visiting from California, saw his bruises and asked, "Isn't this kind of like child abuse?" That was it. We pulled him out, and he was more than okay with that. But he kept at the hockey, and again, the worry was not concussions. He broke a collar bone, spent a few months in a sling and went back at it. I can't remember one parent back then worried about concussions.
Now, with all the research and publicity, at least we are more aware.
The latest news out of the BU Center of Traumatic Encephalopathy had me thinking about something else.
What about me? As a figure skater, how many times did I hit my head on the ice? How many times did I see other skaters knocked out and feeling nauseous? The answer is too many. It could happen learning a double axel or it could happen just forgetting to take your skate guards off getting on to the ice. The feet go straight up from under you and the next thing you know you banged your head. We felt embarrassed, not worried about concussions.
Skating coaches and parents would sometimes do the "eye pupil" check. If the pupils in the skater's eyes didn't look dilated you were good to go.
Figure skaters, like gymnasts, cheerleaders, spring board and platform divers are never going to wear helmets. Maybe they should – but it will never happen.
When I switched from singles to pair skating at age 18 it was even worse. Learning a death spiral (what a name) should have required a helmet. Learning how to land throw doubles and triple twists should have required a helmet and full padding.
The death spiral requires the female to lean all the way back on one blade with one "free arm" and the other arm holding on to the partner's grip. The man leans back the other way in a pivot. Learning how to do it meant falling on your head ... a lot. Mastering a "throw" jump means many landings on your butt – which often continues with a slide into the boards. The force of the impact will sometimes result in the head being the last part of the body to hit the rink barrier.
Anyone who thinks figure skating isn't a sport, I invite you to watch a pairs training session. No costumes. No make-up. No guts, no glory. My own mother was so traumatized watching an early pairs practice she had to leave the rink. She wasn't the only parent who couldn't bear to watch.
Cheerleading injuries are big news now. It used to be waving pom poms, but now it's all about stunts. My daughter started as a "flyer" (the one up in the air), and now she is a base. With each twist, lift, and basket catch there is the danger of head injury whether you are flying or basing. It comes with the territory, and cheerleaders are not likely to ever put on a helmet like the players on the field behind them.
So now we know the facts. Some of us are hoping the undiagnosed concussions don't mean problems later. There isn't much we can do about it now.
Then there are the decisions we make as parents. How many kids are playing flag football instead of contact Pop Warner these days? Many more. When we hear five kids suffered concussions in one Pop Warner game, it's not just worrisome, it's sickening.
The bottom line is we can't all turn into chess players. There is a danger in sports, and there is a danger in getting into a car every day. I would not change a thing about spending my youth on the hard and unforgiving surface of ice. In the end, the kids are going to play, the kids are going to get bigger, and they are going to keep playing. The super talented athletes will go on to play in college – the elite will make it a career.
There are many cold hard facts about concussions, and some extremely sad stories. The games will go on, and thankfully, now when an athlete hits their head it's taken seriously. It's a very big step for a problem that is changing the fabric of sports at every level, helmet or not.
I love Thanksgiving because it combines three of my favorite things in the world: food, family and football (although not necessarily in that order).
Growing up in Michigan, we always had the Lions to watch while the bird was cooking. My childhood memories consist of the smell of turkey in the oven and the Lions getting toasted.
I migrated to Boston as a college student and never left. It was then that I learned that Thanksgiving Day wasn’t just about the Lions and the Cowboys. New England embraced America’s best game by honoring it at the high school level.
My friends at Boston College who grew up in the area told me that their Thanksgiving Day always begins on a frozen field either home or away. Mom throws the turkey in the oven, and everyone heads off to “the game.”
How does the house not burn down? I wondered.
Rivalries. Community. High School Football. This doesn’t happen in Michigan on Thanksgiving or in a lot of other places. Tradition in New England isn’t just Harvard versus Yale. It’s Natick vs. Framingham, Winchester vs. Woburn, Matignon vs. Chelsea, English vs. Latin, and on and on and on.
As I moved on as a sports reporter, I quickly learned the importance of covering a game on Thanksgiving morning. I stood on fields from Brockton to Lynn year in and year out. I remember covering a game in 1990 after learning that morning I was pregnant with my first child. My feet were freezing and my heart was warm.
All these years later, I still love it when those high school scores scroll through on the local news. Alan Miller, an esteemed sports producer at WBZ always chose the music “Be True to Your School” by the Beach Boys. I imagined people from Malden to Masconomet just waiting for the three seconds they would see their school’s name in lights.
Mike Lynch at WCVB has turned Thanksgiving Day high school football coverage into part of the holiday landscape. Nice touch wearing the sweatshirts from different schools throughout the football special. Kudos to all those photographers, producers and editors who make it all happen.
Then there is the pro game. There are two givens: Dallas and Detroit. Now we have a night game, this year featuring the Patriots and Jets. A few years ago when the Patriots played the Lions in the middle of the afternoon, it meant structuring the timing of the meal around the game.
“Nobody eats until the final whistle,” I told my guests.
It was a terrific display of clock management in the kitchen, impressive execution even by Bill Belichick standards.
Now I’m one of those moms throwing the turkey into the oven and heading off to watch high school football. Home from college, my son will go back to BC High. The rest of the family will watch the local game and my daughter will be cheering on the sidelines. Go Blue!
This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for football, family and food. A perfect pie crust would be nice too.