By JOSH WEIR
Repository sports writer
Along with teaching chemistry, Lowell Klinefelter makes his living in the business of coaching football. He has done so for almost half a century.
Klinefelter’s name adorns the stadium at Central Catholic High School. He owns two state championships. His 252 wins are the most in Stark County history and top 20 in Ohio history.
But when the topic of concussions and football comes up, there is no conflict of interest for the 69-year-old Klinefelter, who this season begins his 48th year coaching football and 41st as head coach at Central.
“If we find out we’re doing a lot of damage to these kids, hey,” he said, “football should go away.”
On all levels, football faces a bit of a crossroads from fear of what the sport is doing to the brains of its athletes.
Since 2009, 49 states have passed laws to ensure proper treatment of concussions among youth athletes. Ohio implemented its law in April and will debut it for football this week.
The medical community is scrambling to gain a comprehensive understanding of concussion and other brain injuries. Erring on the side of caution is the prescribed method for dealing with potential concussions, but football is not a cautious sport.
The current situation has caught the attention of medical professionals and has some parents questioning if the game is safe enough for their kids.
Dr. Joseph A. Congeni is the sports medicine director for Akron Children’s Hospital and the team doctor for the Hoban High School football team. He’s also a father of six, including two sons, one who is a former high school and college football player and another who is a freshman football player at Hoban.
“I’m a positive person, an optimistic person, I really am,” Congeni said. “But looking at the research that’s come out in the last five to 10 years, I am concerned about this sport. We have got to do better.”
Research shows that even kids who never suffer a concussion may exhibit signs of brain damage. The extent of the damage is unknown.
Increasing concern has been the revelation of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in former football players. CTE is a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated trauma to the brain. CTE, which only can be identified postmortem, has been found in many former pro football players and, more alarming, an isolated number of younger players.
Failure to protect kids could mean many kids finding other sports to play besides football.
From the 2008 season to the 2011 season, participation in high school football dropped more than 15,000 to just less than 1.1 million nationally.
During that same time span, estimated concussions almost doubled. According to the High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance Study, there were 70,672 concussions in 2008. In 2011, that estimate grew to 140,057. Estimates for 2012 were not available.
Researchers attribute this increase to less concussions being missed, rather than more concussions actually happening.
Participation dropped again during the 2012 season, for the fourth straight year. Before this, the last time participation dropped consecutive years was the early 1990s.
According to USA Football, participation in youth football (ages 6-14) dropped from 3.1 million in 2011 to 2.8 million in the 2012 season. This represented the first drop in participation since the organization started doing the survey in 2007.
The exact impact concussions had on declining participation in youth and high school football is unclear.
Dr. Steven C. Cuff works at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus.
“I think it’s a lot harder when the kid is 16 and has been playing football for eight years, and you say, ‘You know what, maybe you should take up golf,’ ” he said. “I think a lot of families are going to self select out of contact sport participation at a younger age. Maybe we’re going to see more runners and swimmers and golfers and tennis players.”
Nationwide opened its concussion clinic in 2009 and saw 160 kids total. In 2012, the clinic saw almost 3,000 kids, he said.
Football’s demise should not be exaggerated.
The sport’s immense popularity is stronger than ever. The average National Football League team is worth $1.17 billion, up five percent from last year, according to Forbes. Stadiums fill with more than 100,000 fans in some locations on college football Saturdays. Football remains the most popular boys high school sport in the country by a wide margin. Just check out most stadiums in Northeast Ohio on a Friday night.
Also, concussions aren’t exactly an epidemic yet.
USA Football released preliminary findings in May after the first year of a two-year study examining player safety in organized youth tackle football. Of the nearly 2,000 youth football players examined, less than than 4 percent sustained a concussion.
As for how many high school football players suffer a concussion, estimates range from 10 to 20 percent.
Klinefelter believes limiting exposure to hits and improving equipment are the keys to limiting concussions. He thinks that continuing to stress proper tackling technique and concussion awareness can make the game safer.
“Hopefully we can do it with coaching and teaching. We can stop some of these catastrophic head injuries with brain damage,” Klinefelter said. “If we don’t stop it, people are not going to let their kids play football. You can understand that. Football will go away.”
Reach Josh at 330-580-8426 or firstname.lastname@example.org
On Twitter: @jweirREP