INDIANAPOLIS – Kids playing contact sports are suffering too many blows to the head, and an advocacy group is calling for a "hit count" to total them up before it's too late.
Just as Little League pitchers are on pitch counts to protect their elbows, a hit count would prevent the repeated blows that can cause concussions and lead to extreme brain trauma, Chris Nowinski, co-founder of the Sports Legacy Institute, said Friday.
"The hit count is not an idea we own. Prominent researchers have been talking about it for a while," Nowinski said. "But we can push this to reality. ... We have to find a solution for the children, who are most at risk, and the guidelines will help us get there."
SLI works with the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, and has been a leader in raising public awareness about the dangers of concussions and advocating for safer sports. The NFL has cracked down on flagrant hits in recent years, and is regularly toughening its rules for treating concussions. Players are prohibited from playing or practicing until they've been cleared by a medical professional, and Commissioner Roger Goodell said Friday the league is considering having independent neurological doctors at games to examine players.
The dangers are just as great for children, Nowinski said — maybe even greater. Pop Warner and a growing number of states now have regulations requiring players to be removed if they show signs of a concussion, and bar them from competing again until cleared by a medical professional.
But Nowinski said kids are still absorbing hits at a rate that would be considered dangerous for adults.
"We have to recognize the (physiological) differences," he said. "They're not little men, they're children."
Research may never be able to say what number of hits is dangerous or causes brain trauma, Nowinski said. But high school football players may take an average of 1,000 hits a season, SLI said, with some absorbing as many as 2,500.
And most kids are playing more than one sport.
"We'll have to have the guts to put down a number on paper and say, 'This is a rational goal. This is what kids should be under,'" Nowinski said.
The initiative is getting some high-profile support, with Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday appearing at Friday's news conference. Saturday played a key role in the NFL's rules changes as a member of the players' union executive board. Tennessee Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is also involved, as is former Seattle Seahawks linebacker Isaiah Kacyvenski, now a member of SLI's board.
"We need to take it out of kids' hands," Saturday said. "It's us as adults that have to encourage our children and we have to be the ones to make a standard for our kids. They can't advocate for themselves."
The Sports Legacy Institute plans to sit down this spring with youth sports organizations and medical experts, including head trauma expert Dr. Robert Cantu, to come up with hit count guidelines. There should be limits for each day, week, season and year, as well as required rest after minimum exposure to brain trauma. The guidelines would not be limited to football, either, applying to other sports such as soccer, ice hockey and rugby.
Once the guidelines are established, it would then be up to the sports organizations to implement them, ideally beginning in 2013.
"Nobody wants to think about this aspect because football is so fun to watch and so fun to play," Nowinski said. "But we have to address the issue."
And the more organizations that are involved, the better, Nowinski said. Some youth groups are hesitant to impose restrictions or limits because they don't want to drive off children — or their parents.
But if everyone is adhering to the same standards, that won't be an issue.
"We're not anti-football," Nowinski said. "But we are pro-child."
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