George Boardman: Will new brain damage study accelerate decline of prep football? |

George Boardman: Will new brain damage study accelerate decline of prep football?

Observations from the center stripe: Hot times edition

ATTENDANCE AT the recently concluded state fair was down 5 percent, blamed in part on eight days of 100-degree heat. The Nevada County Fair better hope for a cold snap … THE NANNY state continues: Trump’s new head of the FDA wants to reduce the level of nicotine in cigarettes to a level where they’re non-addictive … CIGARETTES are the only legal product that can kill you when used as directed … ONLY IN America: Festa Italiana was scheduled to be held last weekend at the Croatian Center Grounds in Sacramento … THERE’S a lot of bad facial hair in professional sports, and baseball players are the worst offenders … ARE YOU really cooking something if you microwave it? …

If football players in western Nevada County had wings or four legs, they’d be candidates for one of the federal government’s endangered species lists.

That’s a good trend in my opinion because it means parents are wising up to the dangers inherent in playing America’s favorite sport. The adults in the room have decided the brain damage that can surface long after the cheering has faded isn’t worth it.

The trend is becoming clear at the high school level throughout California. While the California Interscholastic Federation reports sports participation is at an all-time high, football is one of the few sports surveyed that showed a decline. Slightly over 97,000 boys are expected to play football this year, a 3.1 percent decline from 2016 and well off the record of 105,000 a couple of years ago.

Locally, the trend is reflected in waning participation in the youth football programs that provide basic training for future varsity players at Nevada Union and Bear River high schools. A recent article in The Union reported that the Nevada Union Jr. Miners Youth Football and Cheer program is once again experiencing low participation numbers. Just 15 kids were expected to participate in the 14-and-under division.

The Bear River Jr. Bruins are struggling to field an 8-and-under team and are expecting around 15 players for the 14U team, according to The Union article. The 10U and 12U teams will have about 20 players each, according to Wayne Watkins, president of the Jr. Bruins.

Nevada Union High School won’t field a junior varsity team this season, the last stop before the varsity team. While 40 kids originally signed up for the team, only 15 showed a real desire to play the game, according to varsity coach Dennis Houlihan, The Miners tried to field a JV team with 16 players last year, and that didn’t work.

That leads to fewer players on the varsity team, which means more boys have to play defense and offense, increasing fatigue and the chance of serious injury. This has been a major issue for the Miners as the program has deteriorated from a perennial championship contender to a league doormat.

Houlihan talked about the issue when Nevada Union lost to Granite Bay last season in a battle of last-place teams in the ultra-competitive Sierra Foothills League. After taking a 14-0 lead, the Miners were outscored 34-7 the rest of the way. “We just don’t have the guys to back up (the starters),” Houlihan told The Union. “We had more guys playing both ways tonight and they got tired fast, and there is nothing else we can do.”

The parents who run the feeder programs blame the fear of injury for much of the decline in participation. “A lot of people are afraid of it,” Jr. Miners President Sarah Hooper told The Union’s Walter Ford. “I would encourage those people to come out and see that it’s really not that scary.

“The kids are having fun, they’re doing it the right way, and we have all the safety equipment out here, but they are also learning a lot more than just football. They are learning about teamwork and respect and camaraderie.”

“With football nowadays, there’s a stigma to it,” said Justin Morgan, Jr. Miners vice president. “There are parents that think it’s a injury prone sport right off the bat and they couldn’t be more wrong … we’re extremely safe and extremely pro-active in preventative safety.”

While I believe the parents are sincere and mean well, you can’t escape the fact that football is a physical game of speed and collision that gets more violent as you work your way up the food chain. Injuries — some serious enough to give you chronic pain for the rest of your life — are part of the program. For some former players, a limp is a badge of courage.

Now, after years of denial and obfuscation, it is becoming clear that football carries long-term risk from head injuries as well. A recent study conducted at Boston University found signs of a progressive neurological disease known as CTE in 87 percent of 202 brains donated from deceased high school, college, semi pro, and professional players. Some 110 of 111 brains from NFL players showed signs of CTE.

It’s important to note that you don’t need several concussions to develop dementia, depression and suicidal tendencies. Repeated blows to the head are enough to create the irreversible disease.

The Boston University study examined a relatively small sample of brains, and the brains were self selected — they were donated by survivors of former players who had these issues toward the end of their lives. “Obviously, this doesn’t represent the prevalence in the general population,” said Ann McKee, a neuropathologist who headed the study, “but the fact that we’ve been able to gather this high a number of cases in such a short period of time says this disease is not uncommon.”

The NCAA, the governing body of college football programs, has said little about the issue and the National Football League has been borrowing from the playbook the cigarette companies followed when it became obvious that smoking causes cancer.

First, the NFL hired a bunch of researchers to study the issue. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the committee concluded the science is still unproven. Then it settled a suit brought by 4,000 former players claiming the league hid known concussion risks, leading to high rates of dementia, depression and suicide.

The two sides agreed to a settlement of almost $1 billion covering more than 20,000 retired players for the next 65 years. They even agreed to a pay scale, depending on how sick a former player is: $5 million if he suffers from ALS, $4 million for CTE, and $3.5 million if a player has Parkinson’s Disease or Alzheimer’s. That’s a lot of money but in a league where teams are worth as much as $4 billion, it’s a small price to pay to limit the NFL’s liability going forward.

In the meantime, players have some hard decisions to make. “I think (CTE) is much more common than we currently realize,” McKee told The Washington Post. “And more importantly, this is a problem in football we need to address and we need to address now in order to bring some hope and optimism to football players.”

Fortunately for more and more aspiring players, their parents are encouraging them to play other sports.

George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at

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