28 September 2013

Would You Let Your Child Play Football?

Would you let your child play football?

That’s a hot question these days as information about long-term medical problems among former players in the National Football League (NFL) continues to be revealed.  The NFL recently settled a lawsuit for $765 million involving thousands of its former players. The players claim that the league knew of the potential risk of brain damage due to repetitive concussions, but did little to educate them or prevent the injuries from occurring.

Some former players link their current medical conditions such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), and other neurodegenerative diseases to their football playing days. A recent study suggests that professional football players are three times more likely to have such conditions than the general population. 

The study, which was published September 5, 2012 in the medical journal Neurology, surveyed nearly 3,500 retired NFL players who were in the league between 1959 and 1988.

The NFL has taken major steps in recent years to make the game safer for its players, both in terms of equipment and protocol. In the past, though, whenever a player got his “bell rung” and wobbled to the sideline, he was sent right back into the game as soon as possible, exposing the player to further head injuries.

Obviously, there’s a big difference between Little League and the NFL. The massive size, speed and power of players competing at the highest level is in no way comparable to young kids just picking up the sport in elementary school. You won’t see the kind of violent collisions in Pee Wee games that you do on Monday Night Football.

On the other hand, there’s also a big difference in the quality of protective equipment used by pros versus youngsters. And, whereas qualified medical staff is always on the sidelines at practices and games for college and pro teams, that’s not the case for younger players.

The barrage of recent media coverage regarding the NFL lawsuit is shining a light on the dangers of the sport and making parents across the country wonder whether the risks are worth it.

Undeniably, football at any level is violent. Toughness is rewarded. To “shake off” an injury and get back in the game is seen as admirable.  That’s just part of the culture of the sport and true whether it’s the New York Jets or some Pop Warner team in Chapel Hill. Taping an ankle and limping back to the gridiron to the applause of the fans in the stands is one thing; returning to the line of fire once you’ve “shaken the cobwebs” after a blow to the head is an entirely different matter.

It’s hard for a parent to draw the line. Maybe youth leagues are safe but reservations start to creep in along about the junior high or high school level as the size, speed and power of its participants increase. Regardless of the dangers, the sport remains a very popular activity among young people. It is estimated that 3.5 million kids play in youth leagues and one million play in high school.

Most youngsters who play football don’t sustain serious injuries, although almost everyone who plays long enough will get a little banged up from time to time, a twisted ankle or bruised knee here and there.  Head injuries, however, aren’t as easy to detect as a twisted ankle and a bruised brain poses a much greater risk for problems down the road.

But how risky is it? A group of researchers in North Carolina and Virginia is hoping to shed some light on the subject, according to an article in Technology Review.  The researchers worked with two youth teams and one high school team, representing children aged 6-18, during the 2012-2013 football season. With helmets equipped with accelerometers, more than 16,000 head impacts were recorded and measured over the course of that season. Players were given neurological tests and brain scans using magnetic resonance imaging and magnetoencephalography to look for changes in the brain before and after the season. Results are still being analyzed.

The researchers hope to develop tools to identify when a player has been hit hard enough, or repeatedly enough, to risk a concussion or other brain injury.

The decision can be a tough one for parents. Most of us want our kids involved in extracurricular activities and believe participating on an athletic team builds confidence and discipline. We may wonder whether football is really more dangerous than soccer or skateboarding or surfing or driving a car or other activities in which we allow our child to participate. Many of us have fond memories of Friday nights under the lights and feel like a hypocrite denying the same experience to our children.

Still, keeping our children safe is a fundamental task as a parent. Each family must consider the pros and cons and make a decision that’s right for their child. 

01 June 2013

A Note to My Classmates on the Occasion of Our Thirtieth High School Class Reunion

In the 30 years since graduation, we have seen the Berlin Wall come down,  the dawn of a new millennium, and our first non-white President (regardless of where you come down politically, this is an event once thought unimaginable), a technology explosion which is allowing me to sit in my living room on my iPad in my pj’s and communicate with classmates across the world. You would have all said I was crazy back then had I tried to explain Twitter or Facebook or Skype or YouTube… who could have pointed to Silicon Valley on a map… who wouldn't have been giddy at the idea of listening to any song ever recorded for free on ear-buds plugged into your phone that sounds just as good as the stereo in Michael Gann’s mustang?

We have a robot roving Mars sending back pictures and drones in the fields fighting our battles. We've seen fascists and dictators and empires rise…. and fascists and dictators and empires fall (repeat again)… and desert storms and Arab Springs and a meltdown in Chernobyl and New Orleans under water and our beloved Gulf of Mexico sullied with BP oil. A disease called AIDS we had never even heard of in 1983 has since claimed the lives of 30 million people.

We've seen our share of triumphs and tragedies…we all remember where we were when the space shuttle exploded and when the twin towers came tumbling down. Nelson Mandela was released from prison; OJ Simpson may spend the rest of his life there.  We've seen unprecedented wealth.  And unprecedented poverty. The stock market soared, the housing bubble burst. Many of us have brought children into the world. Many of us have said goodbye to our parents. Who knew back then: Madonna would still be relevant and the USSR wouldn't?

Take any three-decade chunk of time in world history and you’ll find good and bad, progress and setbacks, heroes and villains, optimists and naysayers…just like this time has seen. I would like to think that we've become a little more understanding, tolerant, compassionate, aware, sympathetic society and that the ties that bind us will trump the differences that seem to be tearing us apart (although sometimes I wonder).

My dad remembers a time when there were only a handful of cars in Marion County. He remembers seeing a black person for the first time. He remembers drawing water from a well and the first house he lived in that had electricity and remembers picking cotton from sunrise to sunset. Yet, he predicted our generation would experience even more change than his. He was right. Change is exponential. It’s happening at warp speed. And inevitable. Embrace it. Adaptability is the key to growing old gracefully.

ANYTHING is possible!

Stephen Raburn
HHS Class of 83

19 January 2013

What Bothers Me Most about the Manti Te’o Story

As everyone who doesn’t live under a rock knows by now, the story of the deceased girlfriend of grieving star Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o was all a hoax. Who knows whether Te’o was the victim or perpetrator? If I were a betting man, I’d say somewhere in the middle. I can imagine a scenario in which he fell for a girl on-line and then let things spiral out of control instead of ‘fessing up when he realized it was a ruse.

Or, Manti could be entirely complicit: he could have conjured the entire story from scratch as a carefully plotted strategy to win sympathy and, presumably, votes for the Heisman Trophy, as some have suggested. That’s weird, but somewhat plausible.

He claims he’s completely innocent, save for telling a few white lies about actually meeting the girl since he didn’t want his family to think he was nuts for falling in love with someone he’d never seen.

Only Manti Te’o knows the honest truth. 

What bothers me the most has been the reaction to the story.

My Facebook page and Twitter feeds have been littered with jokes and sneers about the situation since the story broke.

This isn’t a politician who asked for our trust and got caught with his pants down. This isn’t Lance Armstrong who deliberately set out to ruin people’s lives in the interest of gold and glory. This is a college kid who, chances are, did something really stupid and is paying for it today.  I don’t know about you, but I did a lot of really stupid things in college. Still do.

The kid owes his family and close friends an explanation. Apparently, he’s satisfied the University of Notre Dame, who came out in full support of him. As a casual college football fan, he owes me nothing.

If he were a punter on a Sun Belt Conference team, the story wouldn’t have made the back page of a single second rate weekly newspaper.

But he’s not. He’s the best player on one of the most notorious brands in sport. So, that gives everyone with a keyboard the right to poke fun, I guess.

In the overall scheme of things, I know Manti Te’o, who is poised to become a very wealthy individual come NFL draft day, is unaffected and likely unconcerned about what some hack in Spokane posts on his blog. To me, the bigger story is about who we are as a society:  quick to judge and quick to kick someone when they’re down.  Callous and uncompassionate and snarky and insensitive and hypocritical.

It’s a strange story, for sure. But, in the end, whether he brought it all on himself or not, a college kid who just happens to be a talented football player is having a rough day. He’s embarrassed, humiliated and probably kicking himself for letting things get this out of hand. To me, that’s just not funny.