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Saturday, Feb 02 2013 11:00 PM

Today's game of violence must evolve

By The Bakersfield Californian

President Obama echoed the feelings of many parents when, in the run-up to today's Super Bowl, he told The New Republic, "If I had a son, I'd have to think long and hard before I let him play football."

For a moment, at least, Obama's words deflected attention from the Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh coaching matchup and the tiresome Ray Lewis love-a-thon to a pressing concern facing not just the National Football League but the sport at every level: player safety and head injuries specifically.

We know today what we did not know about concussions and repetitive head injury just a few years ago. The science is indisputable and the conclusion inescapable: The game must be made safer.

Some crazy ideas have been floated in the name of head injury reduction, the most amusing being a return to the leather helmets of decades ago. If that doesn't discourage players from using their helmets as weapons, nothing will. It could work, but with at least one downside: some ugly football players.

Critics contend that the NFL's "helmet-to-helmet" penalties have "sissified" the game. We disagree, and we applaud the league for having initiated efforts to protect players from head injuries. The problem is, players at the professional level have years of training ingrained in them, from a time when the helmet seemed more a missile warhead than a protective device. Changing tackling techniques, and its accompanying mindset, has proved an uphill battle.

That's where our communities' youth and high school football coaches come in. It is they, more than those in the NFL, who have the power to make the game safer. What football needs is a change in the way tackling is taught -- something most coaches have already embraced -- and a change in the game's culture. And it needs to start at the sport's most basic levels, in our youth and high school football leagues.

Many of the men and women coaching at this level, even the younger coaches, come from that era when little was known about the cumulative effects on the brain brought about by repeated concussions. In that era, getting your "bell rung" wasn't much different than sustaining a leg cramp or tweaking an ankle. You sat out for a few plays and as soon as the fog lifted, you went right back in. Anything less was a sign of weakness.

We now know differently.

The governing bodies that oversee Kern County's prep football programs have specific policies regarding the handling of players with concussions. The California Interscholastic Federation, along with the Kern High School District, have requirements mandating that players with suspected concussions be removed from a game -- and not be permitted to return. In fact they are barred from returning to any action untill they receive medical clearance. Golden Empire Youth Football, Kern's largest youth league and high school feeder program, has a similar policy. The California Community College Athletic Association, of which Bakersfield College is a member, does not address concussions specifically, but has a policy mandating that physicians and certified athletic trainers be present at all games. Their policy gives them absolute discretion to remove an injured player from a contest.

Written policies are nice, but if they're not enforced they're just words on bureaucratic stationery. It is the duty of the coaches to make recognizing and protecting young football players from further injury a passion. A good coach will not only inspire players and devise winning strategies, he will keep safety utmost in mind. And in the process, on small, dimly lit community and high school fields, they can help change the game for the better.

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