As football fever heats up, players, their parents, coaches and doctors need to put safety first.

Share story

FOOTBALL fever is just heating up. Fans line up just to catch Seattle Seahawks practices, and the crack and pop of pads off Montlake Boulevard kindles hopes the Huskies will return to the college national playoffs.

This is also prime time to recognize the brutal cost of the sport.

The largest study ever of the brains of deceased football players found near-universal chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) at the NFL level. The degenerative disease linked to repeated blows to the head was found in players from Hall of Famer Ken Stabler to journeyman linemen.

Lost somewhat in the coverage of the research is the fact that the researchers found brain damage in players who had only played in high school and college.

The advancing field of CTE research cannot yet pinpoint the risk for the average player, but there is no denying the correlation between football’s brutality and its toll on players.

What to do about it?

Washington state led the nation in enacting the first law mandating concussion education and prevention for high-school athletes. It was named for Zach Lystedt, who in 2006 suffered a debilitating brain injury at age 13 while playing for Tahoma Junior High School. Since then, all other states have passed similar laws.

The Lystedt law has prompted wholesale changes to medical care and training on concussion prevention. It prevents coaches from encouraging players to “shake it off” after a concussion, as routinely happened in Stabler’s era. It has undoubtedly saved lives.

Mike Colbrese, director of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, notes the gains since the law passed, from changes in tackling techniques to proper helmet fittings. The WIAA has a whole set of guidelines and educational materials for concussion management. “We’ve made advances to make the game safer, but it’s a journey, not a destination,” he said.

The law is only as good as its enforcement. Just weeks ago, the state Supreme Court ruled against the coach at a small private school near Spokane who did not remove a concussed player from a game in 2009, the year the Legislature passed the Lystedt law.

The player, Andrew Swank, seemed sluggish on the field, prompting his coach to jerk Swank’s face mask and scream, “What are you doing out there?” The coach sent Swank back in the game, and after another blow, Swank died.

The court ruling expanded liability for such cruel and senseless coaching, as well for doctors like the one who cleared him just a day before his death.

That adds financial incentive for the adults running sports programs, from Pop Warner football to elite high school soccer, to follow the law. But it should not take liability concerns for coaches to put their players’ health first.