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High school’s greatest hits

Parents worried about whether they should sign up their kids for youth sports have probably not gotten much encouragement from this year’s NFL news. Despite efforts to make the game safer, some pro football players still go at each other with what seems to be an intent to injure. Knocking someone out cold is still celebrated.

(The National Football League did the right thing in suspending linebacker Vontaze Burfict for his intentionally vicious hits.)

But at least at the high school level, there is some good news. According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics, the rates of concussions among high school athletes are dropping. They are still happening, of course. And the sports in which athletes are receiving the most concussions are boys’ football, with 10.4 concussions per 10,000 athlete exposures; girls’ soccer, with 8.19 per 10,000 athlete exposures; and boys’ ice hockey, with 7.69 per 10,000 athlete exposures.

No big surprises there, right? The study took a step further, however, and looked at concussions received during practice. There, boys’ football is at the top again, at 5.01 per 10,000; and boys’ wrestling is in third, at 3.12 per 10,000. Second place may, indeed, come as a surprise.

High school cheerleaders receive 3.6 concussions per 10,000 athlete exposures during practice.

And yes, they are athletes, it is a sport. Disagreement about that point may be one of the reasons cheerleaders are more likely to be concussed during practice than in competition.

“For instance, unfortunately, not all states recognize cheerleading as a sport — which may impact the conditions in which cheer squads may practice,” said Avinash Chandran, a post-doctoral research associate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who was an author of the study.

That might mean some cheerleaders end up practicing in hallways or on pavement or concrete. It might mean wrestlers who are practicing at the same time get the mats, while the cheerleaders are practicing tosses and pyramids on bare floors.

Cheerleading is one sport in which authors of the study believed some changes in policy are not yet caught up to the point where they are keeping athletes safer.

But for the most part, it seems changes in policy and attitude ARE working to keep kids safer — not just now, but in the long run — while they practice and play the games they love.

Let me get back for a minute to the NFL, though. Remember I said hits clearly intended to injure are still celebrated? They are not just celebrated on the field, but by some of those very same worrying parents who can’t help but let out an “Ooh! Yes!! What a hit!” while watching on TV. I get it. It’s hard to stop yourself. That is the NFL most of us grew up loving to watch, before we learned how much damage the players were suffering.

Try, though. The little boys who hear you and their coaches talk about safe tackling, keeping your head up, wrap-and-roll … they’re also watching you be impressed by the knock-out blows, and probably not uttering a peep about good tackles that didn’t do any damage.

Again, I get it. I love my football and hockey as much as anyone. It’s not always easy for me to keep my mouth shut about monster hits, either. We’ve got to make the effort, instead of hoping a “do as I say, not as I do” approach will keep kids from placing value on hits that do damage. Their future is more important than our entertainment.

Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at cmyer@newsandsentinel.com

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