If consensus is indeed growing in the scientific community that Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) begins to develop in the brains of high school football students at significantly higher rates than it does in other student athletes, as was suggested by South Pasadena resident Joseph Charney last week in an opinion piece published in The Review entitled Farewell to Football?, what role will the Board of Education play in protecting students and defending the District from potential legal liability?
That was the question Board member Michele Kipke, a doctor of pediatrics and preventative medicine at the University of Southern California, addressed during Tuesday evening’s monthly meeting.
“I think this is just a complicated issue for so many reasons,” said Kipke, who mentioned that a colleague of hers is currently imaging the brains of young athletes. “It’s cultural, it has to do with health, with our students’ developing brains.
“I hope that this isn’t just a single conversation that we are having. If the evidence isn’t as clear as we need it to be, I would hope that we are tracking the issue. And, if in the end, it seems we are putting our kids at risk, I hope this is something we would follow through on.”
Charney had spoken earlier in the meeting during visitor comments. “CTE,” he said in those remarks, “can lead to rage, impulsivity, depression, confusion and memory loss. It is a devastating and irreversible disease. It is caused by repetitive impact and not just concussions.”
The most commonly referenced piece of evidence in support of the theory that high school football can cause irreversible brain damage is a 2017 Boston University study that looked at the brains of 202 deceased football players, 14 of whom did not play beyond the high school level, and found that 177, including 3 out of the 14 high school players, had CTE.
Scientists identify the disease by tracking the formation of Tau protein in the brain, a protein that, in a defective form, is also found in the brains of Alzheimers and Parkinson’s patients. Repetitive head collisions while playing footall “trigger a destructive response by the brain’s chemistry,” said Charney, leading to the formation of Tau protein.
Dr. Suzie Abajian raised the issue of whether higher risks are associated with football than with other sports.
Superintendent Geoff Yantz said the issue has been extensively researched over the past two years by the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF). He highlighted steps already implemented by CIF meant to protect student athletes, including measures taken to provide more comprehensive education for students, parents and coaches about the risks involved as well as the creation of regulations regarding the required rest period for students returning from concussion, both on the field and in the classroom.
As for the issue of legal liability, Yantz said that students and parents receive a notification “acknowledging that the sport is a risk and there can be catastrophic and possibly fatal injuries that can occur” before they begin. “High school sports are voluntary,” he added.
Yantz went on to explain that CIF is not just looking at football. “As an example, this year in soccer we had three concussions reported and in football we had two. Soccer has proven to be just as dangerous. We’ve had water polo issues, as well as baseball issues. Athletics inherently are dangerous and there is significant risk involved.”
“No one would disagree that football is a high-risk sport because of the repeated contact,” Yantz said. “But there are other sports that pose that type of risk as well.”
It is the repeated contact more so than the occasional concussion that Charney is concerned with.
“Some may argue that all sports involve risks,” he said. “The rebuttal to this lies in the difference between reasonable risk of injury and the risk of chronic, irreversible an horribly debilitating disease.”
Board President Jon Primuth said he would like to see additional studies corroborating the Boston University study before taking any action on the issue. Primuth noted that the value and place of football in our culture must also be considered. He said there is “huge cultural value” in football and that “it has a critical role to play in many young men’s lives.”
Board Member Julie Giulioni attested to the impact the game had on her son during his time at the high school roughly a decade ago.
When asked if the issue has received significant attention in nearby school districts, the superintendent said that, to his knowledge, it has not.
Giulioni personally thanked Mr. Charney for bringing the issue to the Board’s attention.