Local Commentary

Editorial: Sharpe’s Sports Safety Ideas

Special kudos this week go to long-time Falls Church School Board (and former City Council) member Kieran Sharpe for his bold and visionary, if unsuccessful, efforts to persuade his School Board colleagues to adopt some important new safety provisions for students in athletic programs.

His first was to call for a review of the component materials being used in the artificial surface on the high school football/soccer field that is scheduled for replacement this year. There is a growing corpus of evidence showing that some of the components included in the surface used at George Mason High School here, such as rubber, may be causing illness and even elevated levels of ovarian cancer among women.

It seems clear that much more attention needs to be given to this, especially before the schools commit to replacing the current surface. This area, artificial surfaces in non-professional sports, is relatively new and the data is only now beginning to come in. So, Falls Church can wait for another eight years or so for its new surface to play out its life, or pause now to better determine whether a different combination of substances, such as cork instead of rubber, might reduce instances of illness that might not even become evident for some years.

Sharpe’s second area of concern is for the growing evidence of serious and substantial brain injuries being experienced by young athletes playing tackle football. On the level of the professional National Football League, the instances of not only violent concussions, but of repeated sub-concussive blows to the head has resulted in astonishing levels of “chronic traumatic encephalopathy” also known as CTE or degenerative brain disease, discovered in former players (the disease can only be diagnosed once a player has died and an autopsy is performed).

It is the susceptibility of football players to CTE which is the issue here, in ways that are not the same for other sports. While there are the obvious concussions in other sports, in tackle football it is the repeated violent contact that is the very substance of practices as well as games that can bring on CTE, years before any overt symptoms manifest themselves.

Members of the Falls Church School Board appeared very unaware of the CTE problem in opposing the idea of football being “singled out” when there are concussions that occur in other sports, as well.

In both of these cases, one could point to the problem getting the public to make the connection between mining and black lung disease or smoking and lung cancer which experts point to as comparable and relevant to the present issues.

In the case of CTE, studies have shown that it is the younger, not fully developed brains that are most susceptible to life-long injury, and as word spreads, the popularity of sports like Pop Warner (youth) football has nosedived.

It is not unreasonable to expect that a pace-setting school system like Falls Church’s should lead the way on such matters.

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