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Shawn Vestal: Rypien’s lawsuit raises worthwhile questions

Fri., March 30, 2012

Shawn Vestal (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Shawn Vestal (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Not long ago, my sister-in-law asked me a question that I hadn’t considered.

Was I planning to let my son, who was then 3, play football?

The question struck me as overly cautious. Why wouldn’t I? It won’t break my heart if he grows up with a wariness of the sports-worship that afflicts our culture, but if he wants to play, why not? After all, I played football – a little bit, very poorly – and look how well I turned out. You can get hurt doing all sorts of things.

Then she gave me a few good reasons, involving the frequency of concussions, the frequency of repeated concussions, and the fact that frequent, repeated concussions can cause brain injury.

The conversation came back to me this week when I read that Mark Rypien, local hero and Super Bowl MVP, was suing the National Football League for “repeated traumatic injuries to the head.” He and 125 other former NFL players are alleging the league failed to notify them of the dangerous, long-term effects of being repeatedly struck in the head.

Maybe someone should have just shown them that old photo of Y.A. Tittle, blood running down his face.

Rypien, 49, told the Washington Times this week that he’s begun noticing long-term effects such as memory loss.

“It got to a point where it made me concerned, and now I’m thinking, ‘Gosh, what do the next 10 years look like?’ ” Rypien told the newspaper. “Then you become a little scared.”

Rypien’s lawsuit is one of more than 50 that former NFL players have filed against the league, arguing that it put its profits above their health. Attorneys in the cases argue that, though players knew there were risks associated with the game, the league downplayed knowledge of serious, long-term effects from head injuries and didn’t do enough to prevent such injuries and sideline players who suffered them.

However the suit proceeds, the evidence that playing football is bad for your head is mounting. Researchers have been studying the brains of dead former NFL players. In virtually every case so far they’re finding evidence of severe, degenerative brain damage – problems that start with mild memory loss and progress to Parkinson’s-like symptoms and dementia. Think Muhammad Ali.

Obviously, playing pro football is much different than playing youth football. But if it’s bad to take hit after hit to the head in the pros, can it be a matter of no concern for high school kids? How about junior high kids?

A study published in January in the American Journal of Sports Medicine tracked more than 14,000 high school sports injuries between 2008 and 2010 – not just in football, but in all kinds of activities, including cheerleading. Thirteen percent of the injuries were concussions, but football accounted for roughly half of them.

The problem is not just the head injuries themselves – it’s the failure to catch them when they happen and take kids out of the game, because repeated concussions can cause the most brain problems down the road. Awareness of this fact is increasing among youth sports programs across the country, but the study found that about a quarter of players who suffered a concussion were back on the field the next day, whereas experts recommend waiting at least a week.

“Any time there is a suspected concussion, it has to be automatic that the athlete is removed from competition or practice and is not returned until he or she is symptom-free at rest, have passed a baseline test and also have passed a test indicating the athlete is symptom-free after exertion,” said Anthony Kontos, assistant research director for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Sports Medicine Concussion Program, in a story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Does that sound even remotely possible? That we will see, in football-crazy America, the regular, routine pulling of players from the field for a week at a time when they get their bells rung? I might just be woefully out of date, but I have a hard time imagining that our entire ethic regarding injury is going to shift from “shake it off” to “take it easy.”

There are some steps being taken. The Idaho Legislature – which might seem like the place where support for head injuries would be high – recently passed a bill requiring the state to develop ways to better identify school athletes who have suffered a concussion and to remove them from play. Similar screenings, rules, seminars, guidelines and alerts are being taken all over the country. Companies are developing chin straps and mouth guards that detect hits of enough force to cause concussions. A California high school student invented a gel pack that does the same thing.

Fine ideas, I’m sure. But when you hear that doing a certain thing hurts your brain, maybe the thing to do is not do that thing. Maybe.

Rypien told the Washington Times that he doesn’t regret playing football, and he’d do it again. He just wants it to be safer and for the possible consequences to be more widely known. He said players are often reluctant to admit there’s a problem.

“We probably put up a good front,” he said. “We want to make it look like things are OK.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or His Twitter handle is @vestal13.

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