As fall approaches, the health risk to young athletes is ever-present and parents, coaches, schools and leagues need to take an active role in educating themselves to protect the athletes from unnecessary risk.
There is a culture of denial inherent in the way athletes think about injury and long-term health. From Pop Warner, Little League and AYSO, athletes are taught to ignore injury, tolerate pain and focus solely on the the next play. They desperately want to play, are inherently competitive and don't want an injury to isolate them from their teammates. They will put anything in their bodies to enhance performance and will expose their bodies to stresses that are unhealthy.
Most people would have the following priorities when it comes to health:
•Long term health
•Ability to play in a season
•Ability to play in a game
•Ability to participate in the next play.
Athletes turn this dynamic on its head. For them, the next play is the highest priority. As young people, the future is an abstraction, they have a feeling of omnipotence and the belief that "it won't happen to me."
It is incumbent on those family members and people who care for young athletes to play a protective role in restoring some perspective to this dilemma.
Some example are the use of steroids, supplements and excessive lifting. Coaches tell players to get bigger, stronger and faster if they want to be a starter or make the roster. At the high school level, there is a large subgroup of young men who become obsessed with a buff upper body.
Warren Moon, Bill Walsh and I testified in front of State Senate and Assembly committees advocating a ban on use of steroids, having strict controls on supplements and generating the money needed to fund education on these subjects for coaches, athletes and parents at the high school level.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the steroid ban but vetoed money for education. I spent much of my early career trying to get our clients to stop using steroids. They were easily identifiable with doughy muscle growth, hair loss, pimples and behavioral changes. Steroids created extraordinary mood swings, alternating between grandiosity to "roid rage" to depression.
When players stopped using them, they were still emotionally addicted. They got cancer in certain cases. We had several suicides among football players.
Supplements can also have dire consequences. Athletes have little knowledge of the potent mix of ingredients designed to facilitate growth. The controls over purity are uneven. Athletes are treating their bodies like chemistry experiments, with enormous side effects.
I have written in this space about the undiagnosed health epidemic and ticking time bomb that concussions present. I held player safety conferences in Newport Beach in the '90s, which brought the leading neurologists, helmet manufacturers and some football players together to acquaint them with risks and potential solutions.
We advocated blocking and tackling techniques that eliminated the use of the head, banning concrete-like artificial turf, using technology for better helmets and set in place a standardized regimen of diagnosis and standards for "return to play."
I've held more conferences in the past six years. The brain is the last frontier of medical research and there had been major advances in studies that pinpoint the effects. Three concussions seemed to be the magic number that exponentially increased the risk of premature senility, Parkinson's Disease and elevated rates of depression.
These medical studies were dramatic enough to make the NFL issue a "whistle blower's edict," require baseline testing and embark on an education program. But this is a problem that is not limited to football. It is a danger in all sports that involve potential collision. Concussions occur in AYSO, baseball, basketball, field hockey and many more sports.
The critical point is that the adolescent brain is still in development and that middle school and high schoolers need their brains for academics. The adolescent brain is at higher risk for concussion, with more dire consequences and much longer recovery time. I talked with the Superintendent of Public Instruction about mandating "baseline testing" and equipment standards at every high school.
Baseline testing is an objective way of testing cognitive functioning prior to competition. After a concussion occurs, it provides an objective comparison that indicates how much degrading of faculties has occurred. An athlete then has to be asymptomatic before returning to play. The brain takes time to heal.
One of the largest risks is "second-concussion syndrome," where the first concussion is not diagnosed adequately and the athlete returns to play with slower reflexes and a brain that is more easily concussed.
Another risk factor is faulty equipment. For example, no headgear or helmet has been produced that totally prevents concussion. However, there are technological advances in protective equipment that can prevent injuries to all the joints in the body.
Many high schools simply do not have the funds to use state-of-the-art protective equipment. In these tough economic times, funding for all sports is imperiled. But it doesn't make sense to have the oldest and most outdated equipment for the bodies and brains at the highest level of risk.
Sports offers so many benefits to young people. They stress values like self-discipline, teamwork and resiliency under pressure. They provide memories that athletes who do not move on to college or pro sports will remember all their lives.
Where there are sports, there are risks, however. We need to minimize the risks and safeguard our children's long-term health.
LEIGH STEINBERG is a renowned sports agent, author, advocate, speaker and humanitarian. His column appears weekly. Follow Leigh on Twitter @steinbergsports or blog.steinbergsports.com.