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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Football a safer sport than one might assume

 (The Spokesman-Review)
Vince Grippi The Spokesman-Review

How safe is football?

It’s a question parents ask themselves in the late summer. Their sons – and an occasional daughter – prepare to start the season and the question comes up.

How safe is football?

Then the season starts, along with the cheering. The question is drowned out. Until the headlines come, like they did last week when Tyee High’s DeShawn Smith died after an injury suffered in the season-opening game.

How safe is football?

The Seattle Times’ Bob Condotta and Sandy Ringer tackled the question last Sunday and the final answer is reassuring, especially if you are a parent of a player. The game is safer, far safer, than many activities our teenage sons do daily.

Things such as driving, riding a bike without a helmet, or playing baseball

According to statistics from the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research and cited by the Times, since 1982 four prep sports (boys gymnastics, baseball, boys lacrosse and boys hockey) had more direct fatalities per 100,000 participants than football.

But one kid is one too many.

So every year, rules are fine-tuned to limit injuries. Equipment is improved. Coaches take more classes. Doctors come up with new procedures.

One of which is the ImPACT program developed by doctors at the University of Pittsburgh. The idea is simple, the results dramatic.

Doctors have known for decades the dangers of a concussion on young athletes. They’ve known for years these dangers are multiplied if the athlete suffers another before healing fully. They just didn’t have a tool to accurately measure if an athlete had completely recovered. They relied on experience reading symptoms. That’s where ImPACT comes in.

Athletes take a computerized cognitive-speed test prior to their season. It isn’t an IQ test. It’s more like a video game that measures athletes’ response in a series of areas including symbol matching, color matching, design memory and the like. It establishes a baseline for doctors.

Lewis and Clark High’s team physician Dr. John Plastino is the program’s local Johnny Appleseed. He has worked with the LC coaches, administration and boosters to institute the program for the Tigers.

If a player suffers a concussion, they are not allowed back in competition until their ImPACT score returns to the baseline.

“They have proven, over a period of time, if you allow them to heal, there is no damage from concussion, which is just solid gold,” said Plastino.

Plastino has been an LC team physician for more than three decades, so he felt he was good at determining when an athlete had overcome the effects of a concussion. But this is better.

“The way we’ve been handling it, we end up with a kid who is a step slower,” Plastino admitted. “This totally alleviates that problem.”

But even with such advances, nothing can eliminate football injuries. There will always be knees blown out, shoulders separated, necks broken and, saddest of all, deaths. Just like there will always be kids hurt in cars accidents, or in crossing the street, or in swimming pools.

Nothing can stop it completely. Nothing scares a parent more than having to walk onto a football field because your son is lying injured, someone holding his neck, as happened to us this past week.

Thanks to professional medical care from Valley firefighters, the ambulance attendants and Sacred Heart’s emergency room doctors and nurses, four hours later our son was sore but OK, diagnosed with, in layman terms, a stinger. He’s working to get ready to play again, painful neck and all.

That’s why the efforts of people like Plastino are so important.

Kids want to play. The game is fun, it appeals to the teenage mind. It’s exciting to watch, it’s physical.

It’s our job to make sure it’s safe.