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Zimmerman: Contact sports are causing too many head injuries

I really didn’t anticipate learning a valuable lesson in parenthood last weekend. However, after 10-plus hours of television and a slew of the scariest hits I have ever seen, the message has been received.

My kid will never play football.

It’s impossible to imagine what’s going through the minds of Rutgers DT Eric LeGrand and his family. While making a tackle on a kickoff return, LeGrand ran his 6’2” 275-pound frame head first into the returner. The next few minutes were horrifying as he lay motionless on the field, able only to shake his head.

He couldn’t grip the fingers of the athletic trainers. He couldn’t give a thumbs-up to the crowd as he was carted off in a stretcher. He couldn’t give his mother a hug from his hospital bed.

Eric LeGrand couldn’t do any of these things, because football left him paralyzed below the neck.

LeGrand is the most unfortunate victim among a laundry list of athletes that have recently received severe trauma to the head and/or neck. From the NFL’s Aaron Rodgers and DeSean Jackson, to Stanford’s Chris Owusu and the NHL’s Keith Ballard, the increasing dangers of contact sports are, sadly, receiving more attention than ever.

I’m not sure about you, but this poses a really difficult problem for me as a fan of contact sports. I love soccer and mixed martial arts. I love football to the point that I wrote an entire column last week on a single hit. There’s just something about the violent aspect of sport that perversely appeals to us. It’s absolutely undeniable.

Therefore, we should consider ourselves barbaric. But we don’t. Our rationale is that every time we cheer a big hit, a knockout, hell, even a NASCAR crash, we do so hoping, thinking, knowing that everyone will come out unscathed.

But this doesn’t happen. Week in and week out, guys and girls are concussed and debilitated. The problem has become such a pandemic that the Boston University medical school is performing a brain trauma study on over 300 athletes that have agreed to regular testing. At the time of this column, over 40 of these athletes have agreed to donate their brains after death.

This move is both brilliant and necessary. We’re no longer in the age of the gladiator. Athletes should be able to enter the arena knowing that, win or lose, they’re going to come out breathing and, more or less, in a single piece. Everyone involved with sports—athletes, coaches, trainers and fans—must become better educated.

But then what? We learn that eight concussions by age 22 leaves you with oatmeal for brains. We learn that hockey fighting, a skill that is often taught before age 10, causes short-term memory loss in early adulthood. Will that change the way sports are taught, played and viewed?

One can only hope so. I played basketball and soccer as a kid, but the injury story of my childhood that I’ll never forget stems from my younger brother’s Pop Warner days. The best kid on the team, a linebacker that has outweighed kids five years his elder since he could walk, was making a hit when he was briefly knocked out. After getting up and complaining about dizziness, the kid came back in, three plays later. He could have worn a memory foam mattress on his head and this still would have been a terrible decision.

Regardless of how advanced our technology is, if you hit or are hit the wrong way, your career as an athlete, and as a fully functional human being, could be over. We would all be completely devastated if the game of football vanished, but it wouldn’t hold a candle to how we would feel if our kid lost movement in his limbs.

I’m not calling for a ban of contact sports, because I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. Sports, as I’ve stressed time and time again, play an enormous role in my life and in the lives of millions of people. What I am asking for however is that we invest as much time reforming the contact sports culture as we do watching athletes writhing in pain. Get rid of the “if you can walk, you can play” mentality, and lecture players from an early age on the dangers of head trauma. Big hits look cool—until they turn into aggravated assaults.

I’m a social psychology major. I’m not a doctor or an engineer. I can’t design a concussion-proof helmet or a spinal cord shield. All I can do, as a fan, is stress just how dangerous sports can be when played recklessly and ignorantly.

If I can’t convince you, watch the terrifying video of the LeGrand injury and witness just how fragile the human body is.

It’s time to use our heads, before we lose our heads.

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