Column: Time for empathy about concussions in football

FILE - In this Jan. 10, 2010, file photo, New England Patriots linebacker Junior Seau (55) warms up on the field before an NFL wild-card playoff football game in Foxborough, Mass. Jeff Miller, the NFL's senior vice president for health and safety, acknowledged a link between football and the brain disease CTE for the first time Monday, March 14, 2016. Among the players found to have CTE in their brains were Hall of Famers Seau and Ken Stabler. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

Football has become a game that consumes us year-round, whether we like that or not.

From roughly five days a week of football at all levels — high school on Friday nights, college football on Saturdays and the NFL on Thursday, Sunday and Monday — the game is constantly in our newsfeed, whether it’s games during the fall and early winter; national signing day, the scouting combine and free agency in February and March; spring college practice; the NFL draft in late April; or training throughout the summer.

Like clockwork, the game stole headlines again last week right before the start of March Madness as the NFL acknowledged that there’s certainly a connection between concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

According to Dr. Ann McKee, 176 people have been diagnosed with CTE since 2009. That number includes 90 of 94 former NFL players tested for the disease, 45 of 55 college players and an astounding six of 26 high school players.

It took a few years for the most powerful sports league in the country to acknowledge such a connection, but now that it has, the insurance funding for retired players should increase above the current $1 billion available.

In light of all the concussion issues with the game of football, players are taking better care of themselves when it comes to big hits in the NFL, as well as in college football, where players are ejected for targeting an opponent above the shoulders.

But what about high school football, which is the art of the game at its purest form? The high school game was the last one to levy a penalty on players “taking aim with the helmet, forearm, hand, fist, elbow or shoulders to initiate contact above the shoulders, which goes beyond making a legal tackle, a legal block or playing the ball.”

Although implementing penalties for such blows at all levels is a step in the right direction of trying to reduce concussions, the nature of the game still leaves players vulnerable to brain damage.

It doesn’t matter at what football level you play, you’re at risk for CTE from repeated blows to the head.

I’m sure old-school fans and insiders don’t enjoy what they’re seeing today at all levels of the game due to the physicality slowly being eased out of the game to better protect the players, but that’s how it should be.

Football shouldn’t be viewed as a gladiator sport any longer, especially when people are dying from the effects of concussions throughout their careers — whether short or long.

With that said, now is the time for empathy when it comes to football — for the authorities trying to create rules to make it safer, for big-time players who step away, for families that choose not to participate.

This game that we all love — myself included — is killing people; people who I grew up studying and learning about, people that I grew up watching on TV.

The Junior Seau tragedy was the turning point for me in how I viewed the game. Seau was one of my football idols growing up. He was great in the community off the field and played the game the right way on the field.

But while playing the game the right way, Seau was slowly killing himself by refusing to come out of games when he took a big hit or suffered an injury.

That all resulted from the players being viewed as gladiators. Fans would look down on you if you took yourself out of the game. Players today still talk about having to be dragged off the field.

Thankfully, players are starting to focus on life outside of the game.

More players in their prime are stepping away from the game for various reasons, including health. Fans of those athletes — Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch, Pittsburgh’s Heath Miller, Green Bay’s B.J. Raji — are confused, sad, angry … you name it.

It’s hard for some fans to understand why players are walking away from the game so young, mainly due to the fact that those fans would do anything to play at that level making that money.

But it’s about more than that. Football is killing people; it’s time to stop hiding from that.

I’m not suggesting that you stop following the game as passionately as you do; I certainly won’t. But what I will do is show empathy toward those players who walk away, whether it’s at the high school, collegiate or professional level.

By educating these players on the risks that are involved, numbers are slowly dwindling across the country.

Although high school football is as popular as ever and still leads the country in number of players (just short of 1.1 million players across the U.S., according to recent data published by the National Federation of State High School Associations) some families are choosing sports that could be considered safer, whether that’s baseball, soccer, basketball or track and field.

Slowly, we’re starting to see this is in the valley as well. Outside of the powerhouse program that is the Rifle Bears, local numbers are dropping.

Grand Valley and Glenwood Springs struggled to field competitive varsity teams due to low numbers. One could even throw Coal Ridge in there. Unfortunately for all three teams, injuries decimated those low numbers even further as the season went on.

While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why the numbers are dropping in the area, it’s hard not to wonder if parents and students are concerned about the risks involved with football. That’s something that wasn’t an issue as early as five years ago, but it’s a major concern now — and rightfully so.

You can love the game and be as passionate as you want as a fan, but just remember what these athletes are subjecting themselves to down the line as you’re celebrating every big hit that leaves them stunned or — in some cases — knocked out cold.

Josh Carney is sports editor of the Post Independent.

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