As the high school and youth football seasons begin, players will be colliding at the line of scrimmage and tackling with forces that are literally brain scrambling and bone rattling.

Given the growing evidence of the long-term harm of concussions, all of the adults involved in the game, coaches, parents, boards of education, trainers, and doctors, should pause to ponder the ethics of what amounts to an experiment.

Even with increasingly sophisticated diagnostic scans and other technologies, the fact is that we still no little about how these brain scrambling collisions do their harm.

We do know however, with growing alarm, that over the long-term some concussions- is it two, five, ten, nobody knows- are associated with catastrophic outcomes.  Suicides, early dementia, and other evidence of brain damage should prompt us to ask about what amounts to this massive experiment.

While some programs are underway to try to change some of the techniques in football, to perhaps lessen the risk of head trauma, the fact remains that hundreds of thousands of boys are playing football.  Most of them without the possible benefits of these programs.  These boys are unwitting participants in what is basically an experiment as the cases continue to mount and are studied in increasingly sophisticated ways.

In most medical experiments, however, there are rigorous standards to inform participants of the risks and benefits, the requirements of informed consent, and procedures to monitor the outcomes.

Not so, in youth football.  As the lights glow on Friday nights in Chapel Hill and Carrboro this fall, as the crowds cheer, we should be asking whether it is ethical to permit these risks of head injury to be taking place on the gridiron.


— Lew Margolis


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