To live within proximity of a good school is the desire of most parents. Conejo Valley and Las Virgenes Schools are some of the best, drawing many families to the area. In addition to the school's academic aptitude, the prowess of their football teams is also an attraction.
Oaks Christian High School's football team, led by coach Jim Benkert, ranks an impressive number 22 in the California Interscholastic league.
I haven't seen the film Concussion yet, but I did watch League of Denial and wondered if there has been any effect, on any level, on high school sports.
For anyone who does not read the newspaper or watch the news on TV, or who lives in a cave, the NFL is paying millions of dollars to the families of deceased football players who were posthumously diagnosed with CTE, short for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. These players are believed to have suffered brain damage due to repeat blows to their heads. The payments are required as part of a lawsuit settlement.
I asked the former coach of Agoura High School, Charles Wegher, a few questions. Wegher resigned last year, and new coach Kamran Salem is just settling-in. Here is the exclusive email interview with Wegher:
1) How do you see the changes to high school football as a result of pubic awareness about the risks of contact sports?
In my opinion, I think it is inevitable that there will come a time when school districts and the insurance companies who underwrite them will no longer be able to ignore the research and they will be forced to discontinue their high school football programs. Moreover, this past year, Ken Stabler and Frank Gifford passed away and the revelation that they both had CTE really resonated with the generations that grew up watching them play. As more and more football stars of years gone by begin to die and their brains show signs of CTE, I think more and more parents are going to begin questioning whether the risk to their children's health is worth it. When this happen, I think the sport as we know it now is doomed. Youth football numbers are already shrinking. I think it's just a matter of time before the "Is it worth it?" discussion starts to become a bigger part of our public discourse.
2) Do you think there is any urgency for change, or do you feel that more money needs to be spent or more studies done to find a causal relationship between contact sports and neurological problems later in life?
It seems now that not everyone is equally susceptible to CTE. Some people seem to be able to play for a long time without experiencing the affects of the disease. If it can be determined why some people are more susceptible than others and those that are more susceptible are prohibited from playing, that might help save the game. The test to determine this would just be part of the physical exam for football. I think the statistic at the end of the "Concussion" was 30% of former professional players complained of some symptoms of CTE. If the other 70% really are able to safely participate, that would be encouraging. But much research has to be done to determine how much damage is being done to whom and at what level (youth, high school, college, etc.). If research shows the a high percentage of youth level football players are showing signs of the disease, then I think the discussion is over at that point.
3) Do you think the benefit of playing sports in general, outways the risks. Please explain.
The benefits of playing "sports in general" far outweigh the risks. I firmly believe that youth sports all the way up through high school are a very powerful way to develop character in young people. Learning the lessons about teamwork, integrity, selflessness and leadership are all very important things that kids learn from participating on sports teams. After high school, I think there is less opportunity to shape character, and therefore the value of post-high school athletics is diminished. Certainly, the professional level is strictly about entertainment, and the same could be said for most big time college football and basketball programs.
4) Do you think that the enthusiasm for football wane if a non-contact version was played?
I think if you take the contact out of football, the interest would definitely wane. I think the violence is part of the allure of the game for most fans and participants.
5) Before participating, do the players and their parents sign an acknowledgement of the risks, and a waiver of liability on the part of the school?
Yes. All football players and their parents must sign a waiver acknowledging the risks before they can participate.
6) Any general comments? Any better questions I should ask!?
CTE is somewhat different than other injuries in sports in that you don't know that you are getting it while you are playing. If you blow out a knee or twist and ankle, those things are real time injuries that affect your decision making about whether you want to continue participating while you still have the option to do that. With CTE, you don't know whether or not you are getting it until you start feeling symptoms years later. That makes it more dangerous that other injuries.
There is controversy that the fear of CTE could be as bad as the disease itself.
I also wonder about the validity of comparing football to other sports (or sitting on the couch as one defender of the sport commented). I ride horses, and there have been falls. Even golfers can get hit in the head. The thing that singles out football is that the objective is to take another player down, and rather than being avoided, headbashing is glorified.
I wonder if kids who go into football are aggressive or self-destructive to begin with, or does the sport make them that way. Maybe these kids would be worse-off if they didn't have an outlet for their energy. Well, I guess that's one more subject for debate.
So I am posting this, asking the same questions to the parents. Comments welcome.