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Ahead of the game; Concussion prevention emphasized.

Byline: Elaine Thompson

Today, 12-year-old Caitlin Kane will join the ranks of tens of millions of football fans across the country who will be propped in front of a television to watch the opening games of the 2014 National Football League season.

The seventh-grader at Oak Middle School in Shrewsbury not only loves football, she has played it as the only girl on her team in the town's American Youth Football league and now she is helping to coach the game.

Wearing a jersey that reads, "Coach Caitlin,'' given to her by her coaches, she attends every practice. And, during the games, she records all the plays on her iPad and sends the report to her coach at the end of the game.

"As a parent, I think it's fabulous that she has this opportunity to learn the game and participate in football in this manner,'' said her mother, Hannah Kane. "Her goal is to continue an active role in football. Ultimately, she wants to be a coach.''

Unlike some parents who are reluctant to allow their children to play football because of the risk of concussions and long-term brain injuries, Mrs. Kane, co-owner of a construction company, said in most cases, playing the sport far outweighs the risks. Before allowing her daughter to play football, she assessed the league and the coaches to make sure they were taking every precaution to mitigate the risks for concussions.

"I think there are risks in playing any sport. When I grew up in Maine I got a concussion and two broken front teeth from playing pond hockey,'' said the mother of three who proudly proclaims to be the source of her middle child's competitive streak. "One of the things I appreciate most about her coaches is that they try to really teach the kids to not just play the game safely, but many skills about teamwork and collaboration that will benefit them in life.''

Football, one of America's most loved sports, has changed a lot in recent years. Much of it has been driven by the extensive research being done about the long-term effects of concussions and the thousands of NFL players who have become incapacitated or believed to have died as a result of concussion-related chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease.

HBO Real Sports and Marist College Institute for Public Opinion conducted a survey in 2013 to see what influence the information about the connection between concussions suffered while playing football and long-term brain injuries has on adults if they had to decide whether to let their son play the game.

Thirty-three percent said being aware of the information has made them less likely to allow their son to play football. Sixty-percent said the link between football and long-term brain injuries would make no difference in their decision. Seven percent said it would make them more likely to let their son play.

Eighty-five percent said they would still allow their son to play football; 13 percent said they would not and 2 percent said they are unsure.

Additionally, 39 percent said being aware of the link between football and long-term brain trauma as a result of concussions has not changed their level of concern about the game. However, 32 percent said it has made them more concerned. Thirty-percent said they are less concerned because coaches, parents and players are more informed and can take precautions.

Seventy percent said the benefits of playing football for boys outweigh the risk of injury.

"The overall take from the study is that while most Americans are still willing to let their kids play football, there is a small percentage that will not. And, the concussion risk is a concern both in letting them play and watching professional athletes play because of the direct link of concussions,'' said Keith Strudler, director of the Marist Center for Sports Communication, who helped oversee the 2013 phone survey of more than 1,200 adults across the country. "It doesn't suggest that football is dead because of concussions. But, parents and spectators are concerned.''

Mark W. Ellis, who is in his 14th year as head football coach at Westboro High School, said he has seen a significant change in the number of players since there has been increased information about concussions and long-term brain trauma.

This year there are about 50 varsity and 20 freshmen players, up from 45 and 16 respectively last year. But, in previous years, there were close to 70 on the varsity team and as many as 30 at the freshman level.

Mr. Ellis said coaches have had upperclassmen ask boys who they think should be playing the sport to try out for the team. He said there are always some who decline because of the interference with academics or the risk of injuries and concussions.

"You see someone who is a good size and you see them in the gym and they have speed, you ask them what are you doing in the fall? Why don't you come out for football,'' said Mr. Ellis. "They go home and ask and they come back and said, 'My parents won't let me.'''

He said he thinks a lot of parents are getting hung up on what's happening in the NFL. "They're not understanding that those guys play eight full years, they're top notch, faster, stronger and that's all they do. Their concussions come more and more,'' he said.

Last year team members suffered six concussions, which is fewer than the number suffered in other sports, Mr. Ellis said.

Overall, the number of participants in high school sports increased in 2013-14; and football saw its first increase in five years, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Bob Colgate, director of sports and sports medicine for the NFHS, said the concussion concern has probably had more of an impact on youth organizations such as Pop Warner and USA Football. He said when high school football participation was down prior to this year, some of it was because of the risk of concussion.

"Granted, concussions were part of it. But, there were other factors: shrinking enrollments, schools going to pay-to-play, kids in sports specialization, co-op programs and consolidation of schools. A variety of factors that come into play,'' said Mr. Colgate.

With the numbers going back up, many of those factors may have changed, he said.

But, a major cause for the increase in numbers has to do with concussion legislation that has been put in place across the country since 2008, new safety rules, mandatory coach training, including recognizing, addressing and reporting concussions, educational efforts, and enhanced equipment, he said.

"With everything we're doing to try to minimize the risk, football is safer now than it ever has been,'' Mr. Colgate said. "We've come a long ways, but we still have work to do.''

Pop Warner saw it's nationwide participation drop from 248,899 in 2010 to 225,287 in 2012. Data before 2010 was not available. Since 2012, the numbers have been holding steady. Officials at the national office attribute the stop in the drop in participation to numerous rules and regulations adopted since 2010 to reduce the risk of concussions.

Dr. J. Herbert Stevenson, who oversees UMass Memorial Medical Center's Concussion Program, said football is a high-concussion sport, but he sees more concussions from soccer, because both boys and girls play the sport. His two daughters play soccer. Many of the younger children seen with concussions get them from recreational activity as simple as playing with friends, and tripping and falling.

Some research has shown that depression and learning disabilities, including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, are risk factors for concussions, he said.

"It's looking like part of the brain affected with those conditions may also be affected by concussions. But, we're in the early stages of trying to piece that out,'' he said.

Newly-designed helmets and mouth guards, he noted, don't seem to reduce the risk of brain injuries.

Dr. Stevenson, who is also the medical director for several area high schools, colleges and universities, said at one of the schools, the rumor got around that the new helmets that were being used would provide much more protection from concussions. He said the "falsely-held belief'' caused the players' technique to break down, resulting in more concussions in any season that he had ever seen.

"So, that's where I think rules, as far as limiting contact and matching young players by height and weight and enforcing proper technique in the short term is going to make the biggest difference in reducing the rates of concussion,'' he said.

While there will always be risks in playing football and other collision and contact sports, the benefits far outweigh those risks, Dr. Stevenson said.

"As a population, the obesity epidemic probably has a bigger impact on the well-being of our society, so keeping kids active is good,'' he said. "We may get to a point where we can detect athletes who are more susceptible to concussions as well as ways to make sports safer. But, I don't think we should stop playing football, ice hockey and soccer.''

Contact Elaine Thompson at elaine.thompson@telegram.com. Follow her on Twitter @EThompsonTG
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Title Annotation:Local
Author:Thompson, Elaine
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Sep 7, 2014
Words:1534
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