Don't take one for the team: We need to rethink contact sports to prevent youth concussions
High school essay competition winner says the danger of concussions is deeply ingrained in contact sports
Should young people be allowed to play sports that place participants at risk of brain injuries, such as hockey, football, and soccer? That was the question in the 2018 Glassen High School Ethics Essay Competition, sponsored annually by the CBC and the University of Manitoba's Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics and the department of philosophy. Carl Dizon, a student at Sisler High School in Winnipeg, won the $1,000 prize with this essay.
It was May 3, 2013, when Ottawa high school student Rowan Stringer, 17, played three games of rugby. She was tackled in the second game and soon felt a headache coming on.
The next Monday, a player stepped on her head during a game and she knew that she had suffered a concussion. Her next game was on May 8.
It was her last game before her death four days later.
Rowan's autopsy determined that she had died because of second-impact syndrome.
Was Rowan's case an anomaly within the youth sports culture, or was it a hint of the systemic problems deeply ingrained within said culture?
I am inclined to say that it is the latter.
Cases like Rowan's expose the dangers that come with high-impact sports and it is high time that society prevent the youth from joining them.
Inherent danger for youth
Contact sports such as rugby and football have been associated with danger ever since their inception. Numerous studies have shown that repeated head injuries during games can lead to long-term, degenerative brain diseases.
One particular disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), is thought to be linked with concussions. Moreover, this disease has been found in high frequency among deceased football players.
If so many able-bodied men displayed evidence of this disease, then what of the children who play these sports?
Unfortunately, there is evidence to suggest that young athletes display far worse cognitive function than those who start later.
Researchers from Boston University's CTE Centre found that out of 214 former football players studied, those who started football before the age of 12 fared 20 per cent worse on cognition and memory tests than other players.
Although the results do not necessarily cement the connection between CTE and age, it does seem to suggest that there is a strong correlation between these two factors. There is something inherently dangerous with childhood head collisions and the potential long-lasting consequences that come with them.
CFL, NHL question evidence
It does not help that sports leagues continue to downplay the significance of concussions on their players.
Randy Ambrosie and Gary Bettman, commissioners for the Canadian Football League and the National Hockey League, respectively, believe that there has not been enough evidence to verify the link between CTE and head collisions. The NHL bolstered their stance by not funding concussion research.
The inability of these figures to recognize the long-lasting effects of head collisions endangers not only their players, but also the fans and observers of their sport.
Then CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge talks about CTE in 2016:
It is these people that are often the greatest promoters and, sometimes, participants of contact sports. Soft-pedalling the dangers of contact sports should be a flashing red light to fans and non-fans concerned with the safety of the youth.
However, it is not so easy for people to denounce something so dangerous when it has become a part of everyday life. These games may be filled with thrills and adrenaline that seem to counteract the normality of life, but they still lie within the boundaries of the ordinary.
Contact sports have become so deeply ingrained within what defines childhood that it is incredibly difficult for society to look past this familiarity and acknowledge the inherent flaws that lie within them.
Signs of progress
For what it is worth, this is not a move to discredit the role that contact sports play in the development of a child. Parents, specifically, defend contact sports because of the values taught to children.
Although contact sports are necessary elements of a child's growth, we should be aware of the risks that come with them.
The moment we accept the reality of danger in our favourite sports is the moment we prevent the same danger from ever coming in contact with our children.- Carl Dizon
Adults should also be aware that there are alternatives that significantly lessen the danger of brain injury without eliminating the important values taught in contact sports.
There are literally thousands of sports that children can play without causing brain injury. There is no shame nor harm in trying them.
We have much to do to combat the dangers of contact sports, but things are looking up.
Just this March, Ontario passed Rowan's Law. Named after Rowan Stringer, this law is meant to promote concussion awareness among players and coaches.
As other provinces hopefully follow suit, we must always remember that the problem will never fully be eliminated. As long as there is a possibility that repeated hits can cause CTE, contact sports will lead to brain injury.
When laws do get passed and there is regulation, the impetus is still on the adults to prevent their children from playing contact sports at young ages.
Dr. Bennet Omalu, a prominent figure in CTE research, once asked whether we were endangering a child when we let them play high-impact contact sports.
The answer is yes. Science backs this up, and so does the aggressive sports culture that continues to disregard the danger of these sports.
A monumental shift in how we view contact sports is sorely needed in order to prevent children from harm.
The moment we accept the reality of danger in our favourite sports is the moment we prevent the same danger from ever coming in contact with our children.