Dan Schultz has three boys who all love football.
His oldest, Andrew, is a wide receiver at Bryant College, and his second son, Liam, is on the Eastchester High School varsity roster. His 10-year-old, Aidan, also loves the sport but, like his brothers, his father won’t allow him to play until the seventh grade.
Dan Schultz is concerned about safety.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it, but they like (football),” the father said. “They love the camaraderie of the game, the team aspect of the game. I think that’s something that a lot of guys carry forward in life.”
But the game may have other lasting effects.
Last month, a study was published in The Journal of the American Medical Association that concluded participation in football is associated with the development of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative brain disease.
In a sample of 202 brains of people who had played football at some level, donated and examined posthumously, evidence of CTE was found in 177 of them.
The research reinforced a growing pool of evidence that suggests playing the sport regarded as the country’s most popular could pose a long-term health risk, at a time when participation has gradually declined.
But while the study caused a momentary commotion across the country, scholastic football coaches, parents and players in the Hudson Valley have been largely undeterred, as teams prepare to begin official preseason on Monday.
Love of the game, and the lessons it can teach on and off the field are among the reasons players remain between the sidelines with their parents’ support.
Coaches point toward updated tackling techniques and practice regulations as safety precautions that can reduce the likelihood of a player sustaining a concussion.
And some school administrators maintain that, as long as those guidelines are successful in keeping students safe, and interest within their districts remains high, they will continue devoting taxpayer money to the sport.
The methodology of the study has also led some in the football community to question its conclusions, and the study’s senior author, Dr. Ann McKee, cautions the 202 brains represent “a highly skewed population. These brains were donated by family members who, in almost all instances, were concerned about their loved ones.
“This is not representative of American football players as a whole, as a general population, because most of the football players in our study played football at a very high level, that is college or above, and so the results cannot be applied to the general population,” she said in a video comment that accompanied the study, published July 25.
Still, of the 14 players in the study who stopped playing football after high school, three were diagnosed with low-level CTE. And many who play scholastically do so in the hopes of playing at those higher levels.
Of those in the study who stopped playing after college, 48 of 53 were diagnosed with CTE. And of 111 former NFL players, 110 were diagnosed.
The study, titled “Clinicopathological Evaluation of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in Players of American Football” was conducted at Boston University’s CTE Center over an eight-year span.
Symptoms of the disease include memory loss, aggression, impaired judgment, lack of impulse control and depression. The most common cause of death (27 percent) among those with mild stages of CTE included in the study was suicide.
Last season, 31,470 high school students participated in traditional, 11-player football in New York, and 1,059,399 across the country, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations’ annual scholastic participation survey. Those totals have gradually declined. In 2007, 38,354 students in New York and 1,109,511 in the country played the sport scholastically, which represents an 18-percent drop in the state, and a 4.5-percent decline in the country.
Rob DiNota learned about the recent study on Twitter. But the senior quarterback at Westlake High School in Thornwood said he isn’t giving it much thought.
“I don’t read a lot about CTE,” he said. “I just play and hope for the best. If there’s ever a situation where I do feel like I’ve sustained a head injury, I’m quick to tell the coaches and we take care of it the right way.”
Many area coaches believe the game is now is as safe as it’s ever been. That includes Joe Casarella, the legendary athletic director at North Rockland High School in Thiells, who has been a coach and administrator involved in high school football for 51 years.
“Football is so much safer than it ever was,” he said. “The rules, the procedures, the equipment that protects them, the way we tackle. Football, years ago, was much more aggressive and actually vicious.”
Previous studies have shown football to have the highest concussion rate for boys of any scholastic sport. Attention over the issue has led the state and individual schools to take steps to limit incidences of contact.
State law requires that students who sustain concussions may not return to athletic competition until they have been symptom-free for 24 hours. The New York State Public High School Athletic Association has provided schools with guidelines for a protocol for recovering from a concussion. There is no uniform rule in place for the state, but most area schools have instituted a multi-day process for returning to the field that includes benchmarks for showing symptom-free improvement.
Rules have also been put in place to govern practice time. Teams in New York are only allowed two full-contact practices a week and those must be limited to 90 minutes.
The National Federation of State High School Associations updated its rules for blocking and kicks this year, outlawing blindside blocks and pop-up kicks, an onside kick in which the ball is driven into the ground and pops high into the air, forcing a potentially dangerous jump-ball situation. Of course, qualified referees play a big role in safety, as well.
Experts agree, technique has more to do with limiting exposure to a traumatic brain injury than helmets and mouth guards.
All the members of the high school football coaches association in Section 1 were encouraged by the organization’s leadership to proactively address concerns about traumatic brain injuries and player safety in general. The state divides competition into 11 geographic sections. All schools in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties, and some in Dutchess County, compete in Section 1.
There is a certified athletic trainer on more than 80 percent of the high school campuses across Section 1, although only half are full time. Every coach, physical education teacher, nurse in New York must complete a concussion management course every two years.
“We had Mark Herceg, a neuropsychologist, come in last year and give a lecture for the parents and the players,” Tuckahoe head coach Tom Itri said. “We do a lot to promote what safety measures we’ve taken. We’re using the ‘Hawk’ tackling technique. We’ve got new helmets. You have to have answers for parents who are concerned. Losing a kid or two could have a huge impact on a small program like this so we have to be ready to address the questions.”
Most high school coaches have changed the approach to blocking and tackling. Several programs are teaching “Hawk” tackling, a system developed by Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and used in the NCAA and NFL. Other coaches in Section 9 took part in a “Heads Up Football” training course in June, in which a tackling technique that reduces the chance of direct head contact was taught.
“I like the ‘Heads Up’ techniques,” Franklin D. Roosevelt High School head coach Brian Bellino said, but cautioned, “you could teach all you want (in a controlled setting) in terms of how you want to do things. But in a game, it’s not exactly perfect. But I think the newer techniques are going to take a couple of (hits) out, getting kids hit in the head. It’s going to eliminate a couple of those per game.”
Like most programs, Haldane uses a number of padded props that limit subconcussive hits during practice and will also have one of the few Mobile Virtual Players (MVP) in use at the high school level. It’s essentially a robotic tackling dummy that dramatically reduces the risk of injury.
“Parents are paying attention to the headlines and to the research,” Blue Devils coach Ryan McConville said. “Our (participation) numbers are holding steady, though.”
However, these advancements and efforts to protect students, are not foolproof. Dr. Barry Jordan, a neurologist and the assistant medical director at Burke Rehabilitation Hospital in White Plains, said the risk of neurological injury from football ultimately coincides with how long an athlete continues to play.
“Obviously, the longer you’re exposed to contact collision sports and exposed to repetitive head injury, you’re going to have more problems,” Jordan said. “I think high school football — and if that’s all an individual plays is high school football, their risk… of long term neurological injury is very low.”
Interest remains high
Each year, school districts invest tens of thousands of dollars in their football programs.
Brendan Lyons, Arlington Central School District superintendent, cited those safety measures among the reasons why the school continues to offer the sport despite studies linking football to head injury, and pointed toward the “inherent risk” of any contact sport.
“That said being said, Arlington is concerned about all of its student athletes, and any issues with CTE are a reason to take notice,” he said. “There have been many upgrades to rules, safety equipment and coaching strategies in the past few years. This includes concussion protocols for all high school sports, which are strictly adhered to.
“In terms of the future of high school football, we will monitor the desires of our community and would look to (the New York State Public High School Athletic Association) for further guidance and recommendations moving forward.”
Rye Neck athletic director Joe Ceglia has not had a single inquiry about the value of high school football given the potential for long-term damage.
“I have not seen any increased concern,” he said. “These studies have a greater impact on football. Have they done any studies that focused on soccer, lacrosse, hockey or cheerleading? No. And you’d be crazy to think your kids are not at risk playing those sports.”
John Jay-Cross River coach Jimmy Clark said word of mouth is important when it comes to the reputation of the sport in the community. He meets with parents each year to increase their comfort levels.
“It’s important that they go back and talk to their neighbor or their friend who is on the fence about football and let them know that, ‘Hey, they know what’s going on over there. They’re not going to be reckless with our children,’ ” Clark said.
The risks go beyond CTE and include everything from heat stroke to paralysis. Some escape with bumps and bruises, others deal with broken bones and torn ligaments.
Clark called the game at the NFL level a “gladiator sport,” noting that’s not the case at the scholastic level.
New Rochelle coach Lou DiRienzo has watched three of his players — Ray Rice, Courtney Greene and Jordan Lucas — ascend to that “gladiator level,” and enjoy the rewards of an NFL paycheck.
DiRienzo said the reporting on CTE in recent years has yet to give him pause about the safety of the game or how it might affect his former stars as they age.
“It is troubling, but am I worked up about those guys? No,” DiRienzo said. “You sign a contract, and you get a lucrative contract to play in the NFL. You know what you’re signing up for.”
But, many parents don’t always consider those risks while their sons are enjoying the sport. Rocco Ciero’s three sons, Justin, Jeremy and Cameron all enjoyed standout seasons at Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua. Two of them went on to play in college. And he said he wasn’t worried about what it might mean for their future.
“It probably should (worry me) and it sounds kind of crazy that it doesn’t,” Rocco Ciero said. “I think at the higher levels it becomes scarier. But, I haven’t really thought about it.”
Statistics from a recently released study in The Journal of the American Medical Association examining the association of football to chronic traumatic encephalopathy:
202 brains of deceased football players examined
177 of them showed signs of CTE
Of 111 brains of former NFL players, 110 showed signs of CTE
In New York, scholastic football participation has dropped by 18 percent in 10 seasons, according to statistics gathered by the National Federation of State High School Associations:
2007: 38,354 participants
2016: 31,470 participants