School & District Management Opinion

Football, Head Injuries, and a School Leader’s Choices

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — September 24, 2017 5 min read
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Schools are places of learning. The educators who work there are focused on offering students opportunities to learn and grow in subject areas and experiences. Few educators, if any, schools are trained medical professionals who understand the dangers of things like chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Yet, middle and high schools are places where this dangerous disability has its beginnings. It is inevitable that educators will have to become more knowledgeable about this potential danger. Information is now available to set an examination in motion.

CTE: The Leadership Challenge

This may turn out to be one of the biggest challenges for educators. Schools and communities value their athletics and sports programs greatly. To lead a community to a decision about whether to keep a program or to let it go is, itself, an often dangerous leadership process. Reputations and jobs are at risk in the heatedness of this process. Principles and principals are both tested in the debates. Families are invested with student athletes and their college scholarships in the balance. How often have you driven into a small town and seen the welcome sign with the last sectional or state championship won by the high school team? Yet, school sin many districts are holding the question....whether we keep the football program or not!

CTE: An Invisible Challenge

The problem with CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalophy) is it is not visible until after death when an autopsy is performed. Behaviors demonstrated while alive are easily attributed to other things. Three attributes, memory loss, impulsivity and aggression, might present themselves as typical behaviors of middle and high schoolers. After playing football season after season accumulated damage can develop. The results remain with our players for a lifetime. This lifetime may be filled with happiness and success. But, more likely, researchers are finding those more affected will live a lifetime battling behaviors and issues never knowing they are caused by those tackles they so loved when living their halcyon days of middle and high school.

The most recent report to hit the news was of Aaron Hernandez. He was about to serve a life sentence for killing someone when he killed himself in a jail cell. According to ESPN,

Former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez had a severe case of the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, researchers said on Thursday. His lawyer announced a lawsuit against the NFL and the team, accusing them of hiding the true dangers of the sport.

Dr. Ann McKee, the director of the CTE Center at Boston University, said Hernandez had stage 3 (out of 4) of the disease, which can cause violent mood swings, depression and other cognitive disorders.

“We’re told it was the most severe case they had ever seen for someone of Aaron’s age,” attorney Jose Baez said.

Often public school athletic programs are considered feeder programs for college and professional sports. No educator is interested in setting up children for a lifetime of suffering even if they become successful college graduates or professional players along with their success. How does one balance the glory of a successful career in the NFL with a shortened and tormented life. Quality of life is essential. isn’t it? Just two years ago this month, CBS News reported about a high school player who died after playing a game. CTE may show up later. Sometimes injuries are immediate.

New Jersey quarterback Evan Murray is the third high school football player in the U.S. to die this season. Alarm over football-related injuries is growing in school districts across the country, and many are debating whether to keep their football teams.
The Maplewood Richmond Heights High School in Missouri is one of a growing number of high schools to scrap their football teams, saying the sport just isn’t safe.

Report: Brain disease CTE found in 87 deceased NFL players

The Maplewood Blue Devils made it all the way to the Missouri state championships in 2010. School board president Nelson Mitten said the school had a proud football tradition.
“I’ve spent many a time, hours with alumni, dating back to the 1960s, talking about the tremendous football teams they’ve had going back ‘til then,” Mitten said.
But after last season, the high school football program has been canceled.

That was a brave step to take. We wonder how they convinced the community of parents who have a history of love for high school football and the children who are growing up in a society that reveres football. We wonder how today’s educational leaders will manage to make sense of the evidence and make the tough choices and the best decisions for their students.

Football is not waning in popularity. Far from it. Fantasy Football Leagues are growing in popularity and watching the NFL draft is an annual highlight in both homes and sports bars. Whether it is college game day on Saturday or pro day on Sunday, families revolve around the sport. This business of high school sports may treacherous territory for educational leaders. Yet, increasingly, evidence is mounting that makes this entry imperative.

CTE: The Damage Begins on Our Watch

The effects of the danger don’t appear until sometime after graduation in most cases. Can we roll the dice and cast the responsibility forward? Can we assuage our consciences with out of sight out of mind? In years to come maybe one of our graduates will discover a way to diagnose the onset of this terrible brain damage while the patient is still alive. Perhaps, even, an early onset diagnosis can slow or reverse the progress of the disease. But, that is not the current reality. For now, with the well-being of the students in today’s classrooms in our minds’ eye, we need to begin a conversation.

In many regions of the country Pop Warner football is very active and involves elementary aged children. Researchers are investigating whether head injuries and concussion merit changing Pop Warner rules. The issue isn’t just a school one, it is a community one. That may help. However, it seems the potential of school football contributing to youth brain damage may exist. We are not, now, advocating for the end of high school football. Nor are we, now, advocating for keeping it. We are suggesting that repeated head injuries is an identified cause of CTE. Multiple paths exist to protect students and minimize, if not eliminate, that danger. The time is here when we convene our best minds and our enthusiasts to explore those options and wrestle what is discovered within the charged nexus of fear, caution and courage. We will not serve well if we are negligent or indifferent. That ia not the leader’s way.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into becoming 21st century schools. Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

Photo by Keith JJ courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.