February 3rd, 2012
05:18 PM ET
The adolescent football player's brain is rattled an average of 650 times per season. That's just an average. There are positions on the football field where the numbers approach 1,000 hits to the head. And while a small fraction of those hits actually lead to a diagnosable concussion, the concern is that sub-concussive damage - the menacing smaller blows that add up during practices and games - could be as bad, or worse, for the brain.
With those sobering stats in mind, the Sports Legacy Institute Friday called for the adoption of a "Hit Count" - similar to the "Pitch Count" system used in baseball - for youth athletes participating in contact sports.
"In baseball you have a pitch count because research showed that the more times you threw in a day or during the season, the more risk that you would wear out the elbow," said Chris Nowinski, president and CEO of the SLI, a sports research advocacy group. "Trauma to the head can wear out the brain. So if you're going to limit trauma for elbows, then you should also limit it for the brain."
With a pitch count, the idea is to create a threshold of pitches to protect a player's elbow from excessive wear and tear. The same idea would hold for youth athletes participating in contact sports: A threshold for blows to the head which, when exhausted, would mean the end of the player's season.
"The idea is to minimize the exposure that a child can have per season," said Nowinski. "We need urgently to reform sports and get to a different place so that there is a limit to how many times a six-year-old is hit in the head for sports."
That six-year-old brain is fragile, developing. Concussive and sub-concussive blows have been shown in studies to stunt that development. And there is mounting evidence of potentially lethal consequences of brain blows for youth athletes.
"We regulate a lot of things in kids’ lives and brain trauma should be one of them," said Nowinski. "There are kids getting hit a thousand times a season. Is that good for children's development?"
SLI expects to begin a conversation about a threshold with scientists, coaches and other experts later this year. To begin with, SLI is proposing that players under 18 years-old amass no more than 1,000 hits exceeding 10g's to the head during a season - and no more than 2,000 during a year. 10g's or 10 times the force of gravity is about the force of a car getting rear-ended.
The idea behind the hit count may sound simple, but implementation could pose a challenge. The idea of changing any sport, especially football, is bound to have detractors. But resistance to rule changes at the NFL level gradually waned, and Nowinski hopes that the same might happen at the youth level.
"You've got the toughest men in the room [NFL players] saying there is no such thing as a tough brain," said Nowinski. "If the NFL is willing to do that, then we should do that for kids as well.”
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