Citing concussion risk, Williamstown doctor wants schools to rethink football

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Last Friday, the dream of a perfect season ended for the Mounties of Mount Greylock Regional School with a loss in the final seconds.

Spirits were still low at school Monday and for some football fans, the mood isn't likely to brighten when the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee reaches item No. 7 on its agenda Tuesday night: "Concussion Presentation - Nick Wright."

Wright, a retired physician from Williamstown, feels the time is right to rethink football because of its association with concussion and the emerging problem of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

"There's been so much denial over this whole thing. I want to blow some holes in the fantasy," he said Monday.

Wright, who specializes in epidemiology, asked for and won time to address the committee and previewed his talk with Superintendent Douglas Dias and Principal Mary MacDonald. The panel's meeting starts at 7 p.m. in the school library.

In eight pages of prepared remarks, Wright recaps the scientific literature on concussion then presents an ethical challenge to school leaders.

"Given the evidence in front of us, no high school that is committed to be, in your chairwoman's vision as a `house of learning for our community of learners,' can continue to preside over sports that carry an undue risk of damaging brain power," he writes. "Increasingly, this is an ethical matter."

"It is my personal opinion," the text continues, "that, at the youth league and high school level, this is football's last chance. There are already reports of class action lawsuits against the Pop Warner Leagues, and high schools will follow. Athletic insurance costs are bound to increase."

He calls for the Mount Greylock committee to suspend the football program, to convene a study group to review the risks of concussion in school sports and to consider working with the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association to develop a no-contact "flag" football program for schools in the state.

"The science is telling us that we may be putting the brains of our sons and grandsons at risk - and that's not what schools are about," Wright said Monday.

Lindsey von Holtz, director of athletics at Mount Greylock, said Monday that any change in competitive football at the high school level must be widespread.

"I believe it is something that has to start at the state level, so that schools have someone against which to compete," she said. "It would be very challenging for a school on its own to begin. There are no other MIAA schools that are playing touch football."

GATHERING EVIDENCE

Wright teaches a winter course at Williams College in epidemiology that includes a look at the health of athletes. Recent reading for that course, he said, includes mounting evidence of the risks posed by head injuries, once referred to casually as "bell ringers," but now understood to be serious.

"My message tonight," he writes in his remarks, "is that concussive and sub-concussive blows to the head are far from a `mild' problem."

He says medical literature suggests that such injuries "are inimical to the goals of education" and in his view leave students - even those overseen by policies at Mount Greylock - at risk of serious brain injury.

One study he cites, by the University of Michigan's Neurotrauma Research Laboratory, looked at head injuries suffered by high school football players over four seasons. Instruments used for that study recorded 102,000 impacts during 190 practice sessions and 50 games.

"In a 14-week season," he writes, "the average player sustained 652 impacts. For linemen, the average was 868."

Despite what Wright terms an "iron curtain of denial," changes have come in how schools monitor the risk of concussion and respond to its presence. He notes that adjustments have reduced contact in practices and risky on-field behavior faces new sanctions.

But Wright cautions that no formal "vetted" studies have been done on the effect of changes designed to improve safety on football fields.

He said he does not mean to be critical of those who now administer statewide protocols on concussion at Mount Greylock.

"I don't want anybody to think I'm hitting them in the head with a 2-by-4," he said.

SCHOOL'S POLICIES

Von Holtz, the Mount Greylock athletic director, said her school goes beyond what the state requires by tracking concussion in all settings, even away from playing fields.

"If it is an athlete, they go through the `return to play' protocol," she said.

In that, affected students must be found to be asymptomatic for 24 hours before progressing through five steps of activity, starting with light jogging. A coach or physical education teacher monitors their status.

"It progresses to doing drill work. The final step is contact, if it is a contact sport," von Holtz said.

As of Monday, no students were on a "return to play" protocol, but the school has four concussed students on its watchlist. One of the injuries was related to sports, she said.

Wright said he isn't confident that precautions in place are adequate.

He believes, for instance, that more research is needed on the proper way to re-introduce students suffering chronic headaches to classrooms after concussion.

Questions abound, Wright said of post-concussion school practices.

"How long do they go on and in what proportion of students?" he asked of concussion. "When are they ready to study effectively again. There hasn't been enough attention."

While Wright admits the scientific evidence about concussion in school sports is incomplete, he believes leaders must act.

"I think that prudence drives us not to wait," he said. "Get rid of football as we know it, as an inappropriate thing for the bodies of teenagers."

Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.


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