Fighting The "Trump Effect" In Youth Sports

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 18, 2016 ON HUFFINGTON POST. 

 

The media has been reporting extensively on what the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance project has dubbed the "Trump Effect": the fear and anxiety which the President-elect's campaign rhetoric - and his policy pronouncements, especially regarding immigrants and Muslims - appears to be engendering among Latino, Hispanic, African-American, and Muslim children, immigrant children, and children of immigrants, and the bullying, intimidation, slurs, and threats which appear to be increasingly directed at them.

While bullying has a long and sordid history in American classrooms, a November 7, 2016 article in The Nation asserts that the current surge is notable in two respects, both for the similarity of its targets - Muslim students, immigrants and children of immigrants, children of color, girls, and Jews - and the language used against them, leading some educators to suggest a link to Donald Trump and the "degraded course of this election season." 

Much of the evidence that more students are being bullied, harassed, or even physically threatened or assaulted because of their immigration status, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity, is explicitly anecdotal. But the stories "leave little doubt that the [Trump] effect is real and on the upswing," argues the Nation article.

Sadly, it appears that the Trump Effect isn't just being felt in the nation's classrooms. It's also seems to be playing out in my domain of youth sports.

According to a story published on the website, OnlyNews.com, the weekend after the election, a girl's volleyball team from Archer City, TX (about 2 hours north of Dallas) was playing against a team from Fort Hancock ISD in Snyder, TX (a town on the Texas/Mexico border which happens to be 97 percent Hispanic) when students from Archer City starting chanting "Build a Wall!" and holding up Trump/Pence signs, along with large flags emblazoned with the phrase "Come and Take It!" - a reference to the Battle of Gonzales, the first military battle during the Texas Revolution with Mexico.

The Archer City Superintendent, C.D. Knobloch, subsequently apologized to the students and community of Ft. Hancock, saying that "appropriate action" was being taken to address the offensive language. Knobloch nevertheless claimed his students weren't racists, and that, but for the election, the incident "wouldn't have happened," and that "every effort would be made to ensure this doesn't happen again."

While accepting Archer City's apology, Fort Hancock Superintendent Jose Franco said that what bothered him the most was that was "no adults, no officials did anything about it while the match was going on. We come from a very competitive district where there's plenty of trash talk and that's just part of the game, having fun with it, but this is the first time it has ever crossed the line." (By the way, Fort Hancock lost the game. Whether the loss had anything to do with the intimidating racist crowd, it probably didn't help the team focus on playing their best).

Tip of the iceberg?

Unfortunately, if my experience is any guide, the Archer City/Fort Hancock story may be just the tip of a very large iceberg. Since Election Day, I have fielded an incredible number of phone calls and received countless emails from sports parents reporting incidents of discrimination and bullying against immigrants, African-Americans, Jews, and LGBT youth by teammates and coaches. Here are just some of the incidents which have been directly reported to me:

  • A coach's son allegedly informed a boy of Mexican heritage during tryouts for a middle school boy's basketball team that his father would not being selecting him for the team because he could only pick fifteen boys and didn't want to waste one of his picks on a boy who he was sure was going to be sent back to Mexico.
  • A teenage girl of African heritage was not invited to an impromptu pizza party and movie night for her age-group track team this past weekend to celebrate Trump's election.
  • An African-American boy trying out for his middle school basketball team was alleged to have been cut by the coach after he asked the players to stand in a line tallest to shortest and by race, and then excused all but one black player from participating in the actual try- out.
  • Coaches in one Southwest sports league were allegedly told that they might not be able to continue coaching if they could not provide documentation of their immigration status, and that, until such proof was furnished, their kids would not be able to play.
  • After Election Day, a transgender girl on a high school cheer squad was allegedly subjected to repeated taunts by her teammates for wearing an "I'm With Her" t-shirt, teasing the coach reportedly refused to do anything to stop.
  • A Jewish father reported that a swastika was scrawled on a locker at his child's away game.
  • An African-American boy was reportedly punched in the head by teammates on his high school football team and subjected to hate speech, while game officials and coaches allegedly looked the other way.

While I haven't been able to independently verify whether any of these incidents actually occurred, I do know that the parents who called me were genuinely anguished. They were truly heartbreaking for me to hear, especially as I have spent a great deal of my time and effort over the past 25 years, first as a youth sports coach and administrator and, for the last 16 years as a sports safety educator, fighting to keep kids safe, not just from physical injury, but from emotional, psychological, and sexual injury and abuse.

What I found most disturbing about such reports is the number that involve either discriminatory behavior by coaches or their failure to do anything to stop it. "Although plenty of coaches use affirming and encouraging coaching styles, bullying behavior such as demeaning, shaming, and name-calling remains a common aspect of coaching in sports at any level," notes Nancy Swigonski, a physician at Indiana University School of Medicine and the author of a 2014 article on bullying by coaches in the journal Pediatrics.

As evidence, she pointed to a 2011 study in the United Kingdom which found that three-quarters of the 6,000 young adults ages 18 to 22 years interviewed about their experiences in sports earlier in adolescence reported at least 1 incident of emotional harm playing sports, one third of whom identified their coach as the main source of harm, and to a 2005 study - one which I cited in my 2006 book, Home Team Advantage (Harper Collins), and in articles adapted from that book for MomsTEAM.com - finding that 45% of children reported verbal misconduct by coaches, including name-calling and insulting them during play.

Perhaps because the damage inflicted in children who are subject to bullying, or to racial, religious, homo- or transphobic, or ethnic slurs or epithets or threats while participating in youth sports is not obvious, like sexual abuse, or immediately apparent, like a physical injury, its effect is often overlooked and minimized. But the damage is no less real, and, in fact, may be much more long-lasting.

Children involved in sports often make strong connections and develop a special trusting relationship with their coaches and instructors, and if the coaches' power is abused, children can suffer severe psychological injuries that may last a lifetime. In a 2004 study of emotional abuse of elite child athletes in the United Kingdom, for instance, athletes reported that the abuse by their coaches created a climate a fear and made them feel stupid, worthless or upset, lacking in self-confidence, angry, depressed, humiliated, fearful and hurt, and left long-lasting emotional scars.

Preventing abuse: proactive adults needed

Fortunately, from working with sports programs and talking with thousands of parents and coaches from all over the United States and around the world for the past 16 years, and as the head of one of only two U.S. sports organizations participating as a founding member of global coalition of sports organizations committed to implementing the International Safeguards for Children in Sport, spearheaded by Unicef UK, I know that there are a number of steps sports programs can take right now to try to prevent the kind of bullying, teasing, and taunting against Latino, Hispanic, African-American, and Muslim athletes, immigrant children, and children of immigrants that we are seeing from occurring in the first place:

Establish written codes of conduct. After two years of work with our global partners, MomsTeam Institute/SmartTeams has issued guides for viewing on the web and for downloading and printing, for organizations working to implement the International Safeguards and for anyone supporting or governing organizations working with children, including guidelines for creating codes of conduct for staff and volunteers, children and young people, and parents and caregivers.

Be role models. Adult stakeholders must pro-actively encourage children not to bully, tease, taunt, or discriminate on the grounds of religious faith, ethnicity or race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, or mental or physical handicap. Every coach needs to make sure that every team event - whether a practice, game, competition, or a team-building gathering like a pizza party -is inclusive, and that a zero tolerance policy for abuse of any kind is strictly enforced. If children cannot look to the nation's leaders as role models, adults involved in youth sports, knowing that children learn by example, need to step in.

Pay attention: Instead of dropping their kids off for practice, parents should stick around if they can; they should encourage their kids to report inappropriate behavior by teammates or coaches - whether it is "locker room talk" demeaning of women or girls, or anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant comments or behavior - regardless of whether it is directed at a teammate or not, and made to feel safe in doing so; they should pay attention to a coach's behavior at practices and games to make sure they are not participating in or tolerating bullying, teasing or abuse of any kind.

Report bullying. Allegations of abuse or discrimination of any kind cannot go unchallenged, unrecorded, or unreported. Such behavior, whether by a coach or a team member, should be reported immediately to school or league officials.

Impose penalties for abuse. Coaches should face consequences for verbal misconduct including demeaning, name-calling, and insulting young athletes.

Establish expectations at a pre-season meeting. When I was coaching boys' soccer, I held a meeting before every season for parents and players at which I set behavioral expectations. Before every practice and game, I reminded players that they would be benched for one week if they directed any kind of abuse toward a teammate, including name calling, shaming, hazing, bullying, or taunting. By constantly reinforcing the values of good sportsmanship and respect towards teammates and opponents, I was able to mold one of my teams into one which ended the season by winning a sportsmanship trophy and becoming sportsmanship ambassadors to a soccer tournament in Scotland.

Now, perhaps more than ever, I believe that coaches, parents, and student-athletes need to actively reject hate talk, bullying, and discrimination in order to keep sports a safe place for our student-athletes and send the message that hate and intimidation simply have no place on the playing fields of our nation. 


Brooke de Lench is Executive Director of MomsTEAM Institute of Youth Sports Safety, Founder and Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins), and Producer/Director/Creator of the PBS documentary, "The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer." She can be reached by email @ delench@MomsTeam.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @brookedelench. 

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"Back in the Game": A Concussion Book That Stands Out In a Crowded Field

 

Back in the Game book cover

While the pile of concussion books in my office continues to grow taller, seemingly with every passing day, one that will stay at the top of the very short pile of my favorites is Back in the Game: Why Concussion Doesn't Have To End Your Athletic Career (Oxford University Press, New York 2016) by sports neurologist Jeffrey Kutcher, M.D., and award-winning sports journalist Joanne Gerstner.

The collaboration of Ms. Gerstner, a first-rate, professional journalist with a background in reporting on sports science, and Dr. Kutcher, one of the nation's top concussion researchers and clinicians who lives, breathes and eats concussions every day for a living as the National Director of The Sports Neurology Clinic at The CORE InstituteTM in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and for whom I and my staff at MomsTEAM have enormous respect, is a match made in publishing heaven.

A straightforward, elegantly written, concise, and well-organized 215 pages, Back in the Game stands out in a crowded field, not just as a primer on concussions for a parent, coach, or athletes, but for its incisive and often pointed criticism of the way our national conversation about concussions and the long-term effects of playing contact and collision sports has been shaped - some would say warped - by a media that too often eschews fact-based reporting in favor of sensationalism and fear-mongering.

The title of the book alone tells you that Gerstner and Kutcher are not out to scare the reader, not out to make sensational, scientifically unproven, claims about the long-term effects of concussions, but that they prefer instead, like I, to live in the "land of the real." Eschewing the extremes occupied by the loudest voices in the national concussion and youth sport conversation, the ones who either deny there is a serious issue that needs to be addressed (who they characterize as the "just a knock to the head" crowd) or have become so convinced that contact sports inevitably result in lifelong disability that they are so fundamentally unsafe that they should be abolished, they opt instead for the common sense middle ground - a place where MomsTEAM and I have been all along - a magical place where it is possible to have a "more thoughtful, science-based" dialog about the role of sports in our kids' lives. (It's been a pretty lonely place to live, to be honest; glad to have some company!)

The book accomplishes what it sets out to do. I know, because, when I was done reading, it was if I had just had a long, thought-provoking conversation with Kutcher and Gerstner - perhaps while sitting in the bleachers watching a high school football game on a Friday night - during which I not only learned the essentials about the identification, treatment, and management of concussions, that a concussion doesn't have to end your child's athletic career; but, just as importantly, that you simply can't trust a lot of what you read or hear about head injuries on television, radio, or on Twitter.

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de Lench on ESPN's "Outside the Lines" Feature On NFL's Marketing To Moms and A Little Bit of The Rest Of The Story

On Sunday morning, I appeared as a guest on a ESPN's weekly program "Outside The Lines" on a segment titled "NFL: Marketing To Moms."

Besides my interview, the show featured reporter Tom Farrey talking to a group of youth football moms in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, which, despite a rich football tradition (9 state championships since 1996, including the last three), has seen youth football registrations drop by about one third since 2008; an excellent panel discussion with the head of Eden Prairie's youth football program, journalist Patrick Hruby (a consistent critic of football safety), and Maria Bailey, an expert on marketing to moms; and an interview with Tom Cove, head of the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, the trade group for sporting goods manufacturers, whose annual survey reveals that participation in football at all levels has declined five years in a row and 14% since 2007. Moms from Eden Prairie MN on ESPN Outside the Lines

Good thing I decided to beat the traffic this morning to get to the office before the sun even came up, because it took an hour just to scan and sort all the email I received in less than 24 hours after appearing on the show. Some were to offer congratulations; some wanted to introduce themselves or their products, but the lion's share were to ask questions.

But before I provide answers to the most frequently asked questions I have been asked over the past 24 hours, I first want to extend kudos to ESPN, studio host Bob Ley, and Tom Farrey for producing such a highly informative show, one that was objective, and thought provoking, and which heard from all sides of the issue (well, almost: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell declined ESPN's request for an interview) in examining how the NFL has been trying to reach football moms.

I think ESPN got it at least half right in the message it left with viewers, one which I made clear during my interview with Farrey, which was that, while the NFL is spending lots of money, time and energy trying to assure football moms that football is safe and getting safer, they aren't the ones that moms are, or I submit, should be listening to.

As the group in Eden Prairie made clear to Farrey, football moms don't want tackling lessons from the NFL; what they want is objective, well-researched information about football safety from an independent source moms can trust.

While it may have come as a surprise to some of the men who were watching yesterday morning, it's no secret to anyone who lives and breathes youth sports like I do, that, as SFIA's Cove said, moms "play a huge role in most household decisions," and are essentially the "gatekeepers of youth football."

Tom CoveI also agreed with Cove when he warned that "if mothers don't believe that there are programs that are safe, that are attuned to the needs of the child, football will suffer."  Like him, I agree that we need to educate them (are doing this everyday) to what good programs there are; coaches that have been trained, techniques that have been taught."

But what OTL only briefly touched upon in passing was that there are, right now, places on the Internet where football moms can get the information that they say they want and need in order to decide for themselves whether football is right for their child, and, if so, at what age, and for how long.

I recognize, of course, that it was hard for ESPN to not only pack into less than 20 minutes of air time a discussion of the problem of football safety that has so many moms concerned but also the solutions, but this is what had so many writing to me over the past 24 hours, so here are my answers to those FAQs (or, as the late radio news commentator, Paul Harvey used to say, "the rest of the story") :

Question: Why didn't OTL mention MomsTEAM's documentary, "The Smartest Team: Making Football Safer," which began airing on PBS stations around the country last fall and is still showing on some stations? Wouldn't that have been a way to address Tom Cove's concern that football is going to be in trouble if moms aren't educated about ways the game can be and is being safer?

Answer: I was thrilled to see ESPN give my book, Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers (Harper Collins) and our website MomsTEAM.com some good attention, yet my one hope was that ESPN would shine more of a spotlight on the work we have been doing over the past 14 years to educate parents about youth football safety and provide them the objective, unbiased information they say they want.

I am absolutely convinced that if more moms knew about MomsTEAM and "The Smartest Team," a lot fewer of them (44% in one recent poll) would be saying they want to see football made safer because more would know that it is being made safer, that the sport is a lot safer than it was 14 years ago, not only because we are light years ahead of where we were in 2000, when we first started reporting about concussions in youth sports, in terms of concussion identification and management and ways to minimize risk of injury, but that there are more and football programs around the country adopting comprehensive head injury risk management programs similar to the Six Pillars program featured in "The Smartest Team" which are making the sport safer.

Question: What did you mean by your opening statement in OTL that you didn't know if the NFL is telling them it is safe or not?

Answer:  First, let me say that was selected for air was just part of a much longer discussion I was having during my interview with Farrey, which came in reponse to a question about the clinics the NFL was hosting for football moms around the country.  I said I didn't know what the NFL was telling the moms because I had not been invited to attend.

Question: Where was the book signing held and will you come to talk to our group?Brooke de Lench on ESPN Outside the Lines

Answer: That clip was shot in Princeton, New Jersey after a screening of "The Smartest Team." I often speak with parents groups, and to give keynote addresses at national conferences, put on workshops and consult with school boards, but, since the documentary came out, I have focused on doing screenings with a Q/A panel after with the other experts who are featured in the film.

Question: You said during the show that your "fear is that [the NFL is] talking about the wrong topics. If they're spending a lot of time in teaching moms how to tackle, well, they're wasting their time. ... We really need to talk about the right issues, and, until you're in the trenches, you don't know what the problems are." What are the issues you want the NFL to address? You say that the NFL is "sending the wrong message. What is the correct message?

Answer: In the fall of 2012, I traveled from Boston to New York to meet with some of the top marketing and communications folks at the NFL's headquarters on Park Avene during which I suggested to them that, in my view, the best way to reach the moms was to support MomsTEAM and our experts, as the unbiased, objective and trusted source of football safety information and the acknowledged "pioneer" in concussion safety education, to reach more moms. For reasons known only to the NFL, the league declined to work with us and decided instead to try to reach the moms directly. My honest assessment of that effort, as I told Tom Farrey, is that it isn't working.

Question: When Farrey asked you, "Doesn't the NFL deserve some credit for improving the game"? your answer was "absolutely." Yet, later, you say that because "the NFL has been built on violence and collision," trying to be experts in youth sports "doesn't square with me." How so?

Answer: It doesn't square because moms are too smart and too safety-conscious to get their advice about the safety of football from a Brooke de Lench on ESPN's Outside the Linesleague that clearly has a conflict of interest when it comes to providing objective information about the safety of the game. It is hard to expect a business that generates billions of dollars in revenue from a game that involves a serious degree of risk to its participants to provide the parents of America the straight skinny about how safe it actually is.

Question: Tom Cove expressed the view that if mothers don't believe that there are programs that are safe, that are attuned to the needs of the child, football will suffer. What is MomsTEAM doing to show moms that there are programs that are, if not risk free, as safe that they reasonably can be, that employ best practices, that are attuned to the needs of children for the safest possible football experience?  (Watch short ESPN teaser video below - reload browser if it doesn't begin)

Answer: One way, of course, is by continuing to use the MomsTEAM.com platform to provide youth sports parents, whether they be in football or other sports, with unbiased, impeccably researched health and safety information and advice.

A second is by producing documentaries such as "The Smartest Team" to get the message out to the largest possible audience, to show what can happen when a sports program shows its commitment to improving safety by adopting best safety practices.

And the third way is by forming a new non-profit, MomsTEAM Institute of Youth Sports Safety, which will be working collaboratively with the nation's leading sports safety experts, researchers, doctors, athletic trainers, scientists, government and non-governmental agencies and non-profits, youth sports organizations, and parents to identify best health and safety practices, and awarding programs and teams that are working to or have already implemented them such practices designation as "Smart Teams."

We are inviting all those with a stake in reversing the decline in participation in sports by the nation's youth, not just in football but other sports, who support our ongoing mission of making youth sports safer, to join us in that effort. Through your contributions of time, talent, and treasure, we believe that the Institute can achieve its ambitious goals, not only to be MomsTEAM 2.0, but through its Smart Team program, achieve nothing less than a paradigm shift in youth sports by making it, once again, a safe playground for children, not an arena where, all too often, adults more interested in winning put the safety and well-being of our children at unnecessary risk.


Brooke de Lench is Executive Director of MomsTEAM Institute of Youth Sports Safety, Founder and Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports, and Producer/Director/Creator of the PBS documentary, "The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer."  She can be reached by email @ delench@MomsTeam.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @brookedelench.
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Celebrate Mother's Day By Recognizing Critical Role of Sports Moms

 

Ask the average person what special day is celebrated in May, and most will say Mother's Day. Ask sports fans who athletes most often thank when they are interviewed on television after a big win, and they are most are likely to say their moms. Now, ask someone in what month does the country celebrate National Sports Moms Month, and I bet you would be met with a lot of quizzical looks.

Fact is that there hasn't been such a month, at least one that I could find. So, in 2012, I decided to declare May to be Sports Moms Month.

Why? Because ever since I started MomsTEAM and began writing about youth sports sixteen years ago, I have made it one of my primary missions not only to recognize and celebrate the critical role that sports moms play in keeping our kids safe, in fighting to make sure they are treated fairly, and to helping sports mothers juggle the many 'hats' they don every day - as chauffeur, child psychologist, safety officer, nutritionist, or what one survey aptly put it, the "Chief Everything Officer" - but to encourage and empower mothers to take a more active role in youth sports.

Woman coach talking to T-ball players

While the sports landscape has changed dramatically over the past 40 years, with the sandlots of yesteryear replaced by multi-million dollar youth sports complexes and highly organized programs, what has not changed is the hardwired instinct of mothers to want to nurture and protect their children from harm.

But instead of continuing to serve as the primary guardians of our children at play - hanging out a city window to check on their kids playing stick-ball or kickball in the street below, or looking out into the backyard to monitor a group of ten-year old kids playing touch football - today's sports mothers are still found, far more often than not, sitting in the stands, working behind the concession counter selling snacks and raffle tickets, working as team administrators, or chauffeuring their kids to and from practice and games.

Although youth sports organizations say they want more women involved, the simple fact is that far fewer women coach youth sports than men. While the numbers vary, available research suggests that between 75% and 85% of volunteer youth sport coaches are still male, that nearly all of the team parent positions are held by women, and that very few head coaches of boys' teams (around 5% in one study) are female. The percentage of women on the boards of national sports organizations, with a few notable exceptions, is similarly paltry.

What I said ten years ago in my book, Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports, remains true today: "The low numbers of women coaches at the youth level [persist] despite factors that would otherwise suggest a greater number, including the greatly expanded opportunities for girls in sports, the fact that ... today's women came of age in a post-Title IX world in which many of them played sports, and that women vastly outnumber men in every other volunteer activity involving their kids (PTA, Scouts, special events at school etc.)."

Persistent gender gap

What explains this persistent gender gap? I argued in Home Team Advantage that the "absence of women coaches and administrators is a vestige of the sex-segregated sports system that existed before the passage of Title IX. The old-boy network in sports is still very much alive and well. ... Too many men still hew to the gender stereotype that males are more competent and authoritative."

In a 2009 study, researchers at the University of Southern California, led by sociologist Michael Messner, essentially agreed with what I, and no doubt many mothers, know from our own experience: that it is simply the "natural extension of gendered divisions of labor in families and workplaces, ... not simply from an accumulation of individual choices; rather, [but] produced ... and shaped by gendered language and belief systems [that] are seen by many coaches as natural extensions of gendered divisions of labor in families and workplaces."

As Messner and his USC colleagues observed, sports are framed as a "realm in which girls are empowered to exercise individual choice (rehearsing choices they will later face in straddling the demands of careers and family labor), while continuing to view boys as naturally 'hard-wired' to play sports (and ultimately, to have public careers).... In short, [youth sports] initiates kids into an adult world that has been only partially transformed by feminism, where many of the burdens of bridging and balancing work and family strains are still primarily on women's shoulders. Men coaches and 'team moms' symbolize and exemplify these tensions."

I have been arguing for years that the dearth of women coaches in youth sports is problematic because it translates into fewer role models for female athletes and fewer future coaches. The problem is compounded by the fact that female athletes, having become used to being coached by men and having only rarely been coached by women, seem to favor male coaches and perceive them as more competent and authoritative.

Not surprisingly, the USC study reported that many of the men surveyed scoffed at the thought of women coaching youth sports teams and simply assumed that it was the job of men to coach and take leadership positions and for women to work behind the scenes in a supporting role as team moms. (This is precisely what I experienced when I offered to coach a boys' soccer team).

Writing in the April 2015 online edition of the Canadian Journal for Women in Coaching, Nicole LaVoie, Associate Director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, and Sarah Leberman, a professor at the Massey University in New Zealand, echo these same themes. The "lack of gender balance in the youth coaching ranks," they say:

sends the wrong message to children and youth about power, gender, and leadership and reinforces the notion that sport is male-dominated, male-run, and male-centered. For children, who are impressionable, seeing mostly men in positions of power in a context that matters a great deal to them, does little to challenge and change the status quo. A lack of women coaches also means girls have few, if any, active female role models, therefore making it less likely that girls will view coaching as a viable and available career pathway.

Missing piece of puzzle 

I have long argued that mothers are the missing piece in the youth sports puzzle, and advocated in favor, not only of more women as coaches, but more women on the boards of youth sports organizations, from national governing bodies all the way down to the local level, even in such boy's sports as football, baseball and hockey. I continue to believe that it will only be when gender parity is achieved in positions of power in youth sports that its full potential will be realized for all our children.

It is long past the time for such change. As I wrote in Home Team Advantage:

"The ... million[s] of mothers of kids in sports represent an incredible resource. [They need] to reclaim their natural role as guardians of [their] children at play and confidently step onto the out-of-control playground of today's youth sports to assume whatever role they choose, whether it be as parent, coach, team administrator, member of the board of directors of the local youth soccer club, or community activist. ... The ... climate in sports will inevitably change for the better when more women take an active role in youth sports and roll up our sleeves to work for change. From my work deep in the trenches of youth sports, I know that there is a solution-oriented community of mothers in this country ready and eager to take a much more active role in youth sports."

So, as the nation celebrates Mother's Day this year, we should give a special thanks to all the mothers who play such a critical role in youth sports, and commit to valuing their contributions, not just for one day or one month but all year long, and to working to create a youth sports environment that is more inclusive and welcoming of women, particularly mothers, and gives them the opportunities to take leadership and coaching roles. 


Brooke de Lench is Executive Director of MomsTEAM Youth Sports Safety Institute, Founder and Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, Producer/Director of The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer, and author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins). You can follow Brooke on Twitter @brookedelench.

Originally published on Huffington Post on Friday, May 1, 2015. 

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Reducing Sexual Abuse in Youth Sports Requires A Team Effort


Earlier this spring  I had the honor of being invited to speak at the "Safe to Compete: Protecting Child Athletes from Sexual Abuse" summit in Washington, DC, sponsored by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation.  

The summit brought together over fifty of the nation's largest youth-serving and youth-sports organizations, as well as child development, youth sports and prevention experts, to discuss strategies for protecting children from sexual abuse while playing sports.

Unfortunately, like many of the speakers, much of my contact with parents on the issue of sexual abuse in sports has been after their children have been victimized, but all of us also work with school boards and national sports organizations to enact policies designed to prevent such abuse from occurring in the first place.

A crowded police blotter 

The need to redouble our prevention efforts has been driven home over the past couple of weeks, which has seen a sharp spike in reports in the media about youth sports coaches accused and convicted of, and sentenced to probation or jail for sex crimes against young athletes, from sending them inappropriate text messages and emails to sexual assault and statutory rape.  

The first was a story in the May 23, 2013 Washington Post reporting on a 7-year sentence handed down against a prominent ex-swimming coach, Rick Curl, who plead guilty in February to one count of child sexual abuse.  It is a story MomsTEAM had been following closely since last summer.

A host of stories of alleged sexual abuse by youth sports coaches soon followed in rapid succession:

  • May 30: a Sacremento-area youth basketball coach, Troy Hensley, is arrested for allegedly carrying on a 3 and 1/2 month sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl; 
  • June 4: a 30-year old Mississippi high school Spanish teacher and soccer coach, Marco Suarez, is arrested for having sex with a female student who had allegedly come to his house at an invitation he sent via text message and Facebook;
  • June 5: At least six separate incidents of alleged sexual abuse by coaches make the news:  
    • a Gastonia (NC) teacher and wrestling coach is charged with fifteen felony counts of child sex crimes spanning the five-year period from 1999 to 2004; 
    • a former Corvallis (OR) cheerleading coach, David Chatman, 38, pleads guilty  to a charge of second-degree sexual abuse for having sex at his apartment with an underage student rendered unconscious by a presciption medicine she had been taking (the worst thing about this one is that Chatman was already a registered sex offender after being convicted of touching a sleeping 16-year-old cheerleader on an airplane in 2007 while he was the head coach for an all-star cheerleading team on its way home from a competition on the East Coast);
    • A former Viera High School (FL) assistant football coach is sentenced to three years probation after pleading guilty to three misdemeanor counts of contributing to the delinquency or dependency of a minor for sending questionable text messages and emails to a female student last year.
    • A Gastonia (NC) science teacher and wrestling coach is arrested on 14 felony counts of indecent liberties, six with a student, and eight with a child, and one felony county of statutory rape of a minor 6 years of age or older which allegedly took place between May 1, 1999 and June 15, 2004.
    • A 41-year-old Orange County (FL) boxing coach, James Lyons, is arrested after a 17-year-old girl he was teaching to box said he forced her to have sex with him on four separate occasions.  The victim's mother told Orange County Sheriff's deputies that she "felt like Lyons was a father figure." The victim has been training with Lyons for four years about six times a week. She started meeting Lyons at his home to conduct video training lessons to prepare for a match this summer and that's where they had sex, the report said.
    • A Harpeth Hall (TN) middle school soccer coach, George "Rico" Laise, 46, is arrested on two counts of statutory rape by an authority figure and two counts of rape involving a victim with a mental incapacity stemming from charges that he had an unlawful sexual relationship with an underage student suffering from the results of a concussion suffered in 2012 at a tournament in Las Vegas while playing on a travel soccer team he coached. Police say the girl, who was 16 at the time, Laise began having sexual conversations her after the concussion. That March, she later told police, their sexual relationship began, which lasted through April of this year and occurred mostly at his home, while she was still suffering from the concussion; and
    • An inquest in the United Kingdom into the February death of  popular athletics coach learns that he killed himself three days after he was arrested on suspicion of engaging in sexual activity with a child.

What explains this sudden rash of news reports of sexual abuse of young athletes? Is it that our children are more willing to report such crimes, the vast majority of which go unreported? Is it that parents are getting better at identifying some of the warning signs of sexual abuse? I would like to think that both are at least partially responsible. 

One thing of which I am sure is that a number of national organizations, including the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the United States Olympic Committee, are taking leadership roles in this area by implementing new programs specifically targeting sexual abuse by coaches of young athletes, the NCMEC with its Safe to Compete program, and the USOC with its Safe Sport initiative.

Sheldon Kennedy and Joe Ehrman

Former elite athletes speak up and out 

Another promising development is that more and more elite athletes are joining the fight against sexual abuse in sports.  At the summit in March I  spent time with three former elite athletes who are standing up against sexual abuse, each of whom added to my knowledge of sexual abuse and the havoc it creates.

Former NFL defensive lineman Joe Ehrmann is an inspirational dynamic speaker who only recently began publicly speaking about his abuse. He told me that after more than fifty years since he was abused, "I want to make sure this ends and that no other child has to go through the hell I went through. At my age it just doesn't make sense to keep it a secret." 

Another high profile athlete who speaks bravely about his own abuse is former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy (pictured with Ehrmann at right). Sheldon is known for his courageous decision to charge his Major Junior Hockey league coach with sexual assault for the abuse he suffered over a five year period while a teenager under his care.  As the co-founder of the Canadian group Respect Group, Inc., Kennedy's focus is on empowering people to recognize and prevent abuse, bullying and harassment in sports and schools through interactive, online certification. 

After the first day of the summit, I took a long walk with Katherine Starr, a former member of the British Olympic swimming team for the 1984 and '88 Summer Games, during which I learned just how much the sexual abuse to which she was subjected as a teenager continues to seep into everything she does in life. Little things - like when a new acquaintance innocently touches her shoulder or arm - still evoke an immediate and visceral negative reaction.  To help fellow abuse victims, Katherine has established a non-profit organization, Safe4Athletes, to advocate for a safe and positive environment for all athletes free of sexual abuse, bullying and harassment. (that's me with Katherine in the picture at right)

Katherine Starr and Brooke de Lench

I strongly encourage you as a parent to visit each of these websites to which I have linked in this blog, and consider inviting Joe, Kathleen or Sheldon to come to speak to the youth sports organizations in your community. The best way to prevent abuse is to be proactive, to become educated.  There are ways to reduce sexual abuse by coaches.  It takes commitment from every stakeholder: parents, athletes, coaches, administrators, and national organizations such as NCMEC and the USOC.  Together we can make a difference in the lives of children so that they don't end up scarred for life like Kathleen, Joe, Sheldon and the victims of the abusers in the horrible stories that have made the past few weeks so difficult.

Related articles and resources:

Some of my recent blogs on sexual abuse: 

Warning Signs of Sexual Abuse by Coach of Child

Penn State Sex Abuse Scandal: What Happens When Media Spotlight Fades?

For more prevention tips, visit Sexual Abuse Center on MomsTEAM's Health & Safety Channel.

Other resources: 

To download the NCMEC's Safe To Compete materials, click here

To join the USOC's 12-month safe sport campaign, Make the Committment: Stop Abuse in Sport, click here

To visit Katherine Starr's excellent website, Safe4Athletes.org, click here

 


Brooke de Lench is the Founder and Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, producer/director of the new high school football concussion documentary, The Smartest Team, and author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins).

 

 

 

 



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Why I'm Not a Football Apologist or Anti-Football Zealot: I'm a Pro-Safety Realist


As I await tonight's advance screening in Boston of Sony Pictures' movie, Concussion, which opens nationwide on Christmas Day, the polarized debate over football has once again reached a fever pitch.

In contrast to recent battles in the now 110-year war over football MomsTEAM Institute of Youth Sports Safety, the non-profit I have headed for the last fifteen years, is not merely an interested spectator this time around.

That's because Sony Pictures chose the Institute as its partner in its Dance or Donate #ForThePlayers social media campaign; an initiative designed not just to publicize the movie but to promote our 15-year effort to make youth football and all sports safer (which is why the Institute is hosting the Boston screening)

Like it or not, I have been drawn directly into the fray.

Not surprisingly, the Institute and I have been taking some pretty savage hits on social media from those who believe that any organization that fails to join the call for an immediate end to football as we know it in America is, by definition, their sworn enemy.

The truth is that I'm not a football apologist, CTE denier, or anti-football zealot. I am, and always have been, a pro-safety pragmatist.

With all due respect to Dr. Bennet Omalu, the hero of Concussion, a courageous and fellow truth-teller who I greatly admire, the reality is that, as terrible, frightening, and real as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the neurodegenerative disease he discovered in the brains of former NFL players, is - especially to those who once played or still play professional football, and their families and friends - and as gut-wrenching as it is to see, read about, or hear the stories of athletes whose lives have been affected or cut short by CTE, football is not going away any time in the foreseeable future, and, from all available evidence, is safer than it has ever been.

Personally, I believe kids should probably delay the start of tackle football until middle or high school. If I knew back when I had a son playing middle and high school football - a son who was forced by sports-related concussions to retire from both football and lacrosse before his junior year - what I know now, I would not have let him play. Knowing what I know now about the risks of football, it would be easy to simply tell parents who allow their children to play tackle football that they are committing child abuse by exposing them to the risk of ending up with CTE, and throw up my hands and walk away in disgust when they don't listen.

Or I could tell parents deciding whether to let their child start playing tackle football that, if they do let them play - a decision that is theirs, and not mine, to make - that, before they do, they make sure the program puts their child's safety first: by, among other things, educating coaches, parents, and players about concussions, supplying players properly reconditioned and fitted helmets, teaching players how to tackle without using those helmets, minimizing the amount of full-contract practice time, creating an environment in which players feel safe in honestly reporting concussion symptoms, ensuring that concussions, when they do occur, are managed properly, and prohibiting players from returning to practice and play until a doctor with concussion expertise decides in the exercise of good clinical judgment that their growing brains have been given all the time they need - and then some - to heal.

Because millions of athletes, from Pop Warner to the NFL, will continue to play the game, I decided that my job, as it has been for the last 15 plus years, isn't to sit in front of a computer all day, questioning the morals, ethics, or motivations of those involved in the never-ending effort to make sports safer. It is instead, as I like to say, to work in the trenches - to lace up my Asics every morning, talk to youth sports coaches on the sidelines, climb into the stands to talk with moms and dads during practice and games, attend their board meetings, and, above all, to work with top experts in their fields to continue to provide every youth sports stakeholder with the latest and most comprehensive and objective information about the risks of playing contact and collision sports such as football (and soccer, and lacrosse, and hockey).

I have chosen to work to make sports safety through education and grass roots activism: to educate every sports stakeholder about the steps that can be and are being taken to reduce the risks of traumatic brain injury, not just from concussion but the cumulative effect of repetitive head trauma; and how those risks can be further minimized through a comprehensive traumatic brain injury risk management program focusing on early concussion identification, immediate removal from play, appropriate treatment, conservative return to play, and retirement from contact sports when the risk of continued play becomes unacceptably high.

Admittedly, in an age in which more and more people tend to gravitate towards opposite ends of the spectrum in their opinions on just about anything - in the case of the great debate about football, either urging parents to find another sport for their child to play or extolling its many benefits while minimizing its risks - it is hard for anyone like I am who occupies the reasonable, pragmatic, pro-safety middle to be heard above the maddening crowd.

The challenge I face - that all those of us who love, not just the game of football, but all sports and are dedicated to making them safer - is having our message heard. For the most part, the national media doesn't seem interested in reporting good news - that there are steps being taken to make football and contact and collision sports such as soccer, lacrosse, and hockey, safer - because it is bad news, scary news, sensational news, that sells, and that some in Concussion, Inc. depend for their very existence on promoting.

From my vantage point, having spent countless hours working the last 15 years with youth and football communities around the country, from talking with football parents, coaches, administrators, athletic trainers, clinicians and academicians, and from becoming educated about the actual facts about the safety of football, I believe that, not only is football a sport worth saving, and that it can be saved, but that those who call for it to simply be abolished, represent an extremely vocal minority.

I simply refuse to be cowed into turning my back on the millions of kids who continue to play the game and their parents, and on the thousands of youth and high school football programs around the country which for the past fifteen years have looked, and continue to look, to MomsTEAM for advice on how to make the game as safe as it can be.

In the end, I don't believe it will be those who scream the loudest, the trolls on social media engaging in the politics of emotion and innuendo, who hide behind dummy Twitter handles, who will prevail. It will be those who discuss the risks and benefits of sports calmly, rationally, and objectively, who work tirelessly to make sports safer, based on science, who will win out.


Brooke de Lench is Executive Director of MomsTEAM Institute of Youth Sports Safety, Founder and Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports, and Producer and Director of The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer (PBS). You can follow Brooke on Twitter @brookedelench@momsteam.com.

 

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Are Parents Who Allow Young Athletes To Play Contact or Collision Sports Guilty of Child Abuse?

As long-time visitors to MomsTeam or readers of my blog and 2006 book, Home Team Advantage, know, I have always taken a somewhate expansive view of what constitutes child abuse in the context of sports. 

Among other things, I have long advocated for adoption by the United States of the protections against abuse contained in the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child [Update: as of December 11, 2015, the U.S. was the only country in the world that has not signed the convention] and believe that a parent or coach who knowingly allows a child to continue to play while injured, or recklessly exposes a child to an unreasonable risk of sports injury, is engaging in child abuse.

So, when I was asked in a recent radio interview, whether I viewed parents who allow their children - particularly elementary school age-children  - to participate in collision sports as committing child abuse, I had to stop for a moment to think.  

On the one hand, there appears to be a growing body of research suggesting that playing contact or collision sports for a long period of time likely has, at least for some unknown percentage of athletes, serious adverse health consequences, not just from concussions but from the cumulative effect of sub-concussive blows to the head, blows which athletes in youth football, lacrosse, and, until recently, hockey, suffer on an almost constant basis in both games and practices.  Such evidence. while far from conclusive, has raised alarm bells among some in the youth sports community and prompted at least one leading concussion expert, Dr. Robert Cantu, MomsTeam's concussion expert emeritus, to recently recommend that kids not play such sports until middle or high school, at least under current rules.

On the other hand, while I personally think Dr. Cantu's recommendation is worthy of serious consideration, I don't believe parents who allow their kids to start or continue to play collision sports before middle school are engaging in child abuse.

Here's why:

  • All sports, whether collision, contact, individual or team, involves a certain amount of risk. Risk of injury is inherent to sport, and sport cannot be made completely risk free any more than riding around on a bike or running around on a playground can be made injury-proof.1  Kids can't live in a bubble, nor should they.
  • That doesn't mean risk can't and shouldn't be minimized wherever possible.  It should.  One of my principal missions, from even before MomsTeam was launched in 2000, has been to minimize the risk of injury in youth sports through training and education of sports parents, coaches and administrators, advocating for rule changes, and by urging the use of safer equipment.
  • While there is a level of risk at which a parent could be deemed guilty of child abuse - say, for instance, by allowing their child to return to the playing field knowing that they are still experiencing concusssion symptoms, and thus recklessly exposing them to the risk of a further delay in concussion recovery, long-term brain injury, or even death from second impact syndrome - unless their recklessness is really that extreme, I believe the degree of risk they are willing to have their child take on is really up to them, such that exposing them to that risk is not, in my view, child abuse.

 

Knowledge is power

In the end, it all comes back to education: In the ideal world, a parent's decision about whether to allow a child to start playing or continue playing collision sports before high school under current rules of play (which are evolving in the direction of safety, fortunately, as seen, for instance, in USA Hockey's ban on body checking at the Pee Wee hockey level and below, and limits on full-contact practices instituted at every level of football, from Pop Warner, to high school, college, and the NFL), will be a conscious one; a decision in which the risks of participating in a particular sport - provided it is based on the most up-to-date information about those risks and a consideration of other risk factors that might come into play for their child, such as pre-existing learning disabilities (e.g. ADHD), chronic health conditions (e.g., a history of history of multiple concussions or seizures, history of migraines), or a reckless and overly aggressive style of play - are balanced against the  benefits to the child of participating.

Ultimately, our kids have to rely on their parents to make sure they are doing everything they can to minimize injuries by knowing the risks, and by making sure that, if and when they do suffer a sports injury, such as concussion, they receive appropriate treatment. More than that, I think, we cannot expect.  


Brooke de Lench is Executive Director of MomsTEAM Youth Sports Safety Institute, Founder and Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, producer/director of the PBS documentary, The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer, and author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins 2006)  

1. The Centers for Disease Control's study on traumatic brain injuries in youth and high school sports and recreational activities agrees.  "Risk for TBI," it says, "is inherent to physical activity and can occur during any activity at any age."   Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). Nonfatal Traumatic Brain Injuries Related to Sports and Recreation Activities Among Persons Aged ≤ 19 Years -- United States, 2001-2009; 2011; 60(39):1337-1342 (http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6039a1.htm?s_cid=mm6039a1_e&s...)(accessed October 7, 2011).  Interestingly, riding a bike and playground were number one and number three on the list of activities resulting in emergency room visits for traumatic brain injury overall (8.1% and 7.9% respectively), second and third among males under age 19 (16.5%, 7.8%), second and first among girls (11.8%, 14.2%), and number one and two for boys and girls aged 9 or younger.   

MomsTEAM Institute of Youth Sports Safety, Inc. is a registered 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization which relies on donations from readers like you. Help us continue to provide the best in youth sports safety and parenting information by making a donation today.  

 

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Seven Days In November: Concussions 24/7

It's been a very busy seven days.  Pretty much, all football, all concussions, all the time.

It began with a trip to Washington, D.C. to participate in last Friday's Aspen Institute roundtable on the future of youth and high school football, and back home.

Saturday and Sunday were spent getting the trailer for the new MomsTEAM football documentary, The Smartest Team,  uploaded to a new website.

On Monday morning, after sharing my thoughts on Aspen, I turned my attention to preparing for a quick trip to Austin, Texas on Wednesday, where I was the after-dinner speaker at the end of a symposium on concussions put on by Core Health Systems.

Yesterday, I returned to Boston just in time to attend a lecture by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on football safety at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Today (it's Friday, right?), I am finally back at my desk trying to make sense of it all, including catching up on everything that has been written about the Aspen Institute roundtable and on reports about the way in which the concussions suffered by three NFL quarterbacks on Sunday were handled.

One of the Aspen and NFL concussion post-mortems I found particularly provocative was by Mike Wise, a columnist for The Washington Post.  While I am not prone to writing in the somewhat snarky and definitly sarcastic tone Wise employed in his Tuesday column, and although he seemed to mostly align himself with the group at Aspen - led by Dr. Bob Cantu - that views football as too dangerous to be played before the age of 14 (a position with which I respectfully disagree),  I did find myself agreeing with what seemed to be his main point: that whatever measures are instituted to protect player safety will get us nowhere if the culture on NFL fields (and by extension, the high school, middle school, and youth gridiron) doesn't change. If the long-since discredited language of "shake it off'" and "getting dinged" persists; if players aren't willing to self-report concussion symptoms; and, when on rare occasion they actually do, the coaches and medical personnel on the sideline don't take a lot more cautious approach in concussion management and pay more than lip service to the mantra of "When in doubt, sit them out," well, then, football may be in for a world of hurt. 

In reading reports about how the concussion suffered by San Francisco 49er Alex Smith was handled, or, in the view of many, including Wise, mishandled, I was particularly struck by remarks attributed to Coach Jim Harbaugh as to why he allowed his quarterback Alex Smith to take six more snaps (ending, amazingly, in a touchdown pass) after admitting that he was experiencing blurred vision from a head-rattling hit on a quarterback sneak.  "He felt [the blurred vision] would go away. He came over to the sideline and sat down and felt it would go away, and it didn't," said Harbaugh. "He told me he had blurred vision, and that's when we made the move [to sit him out for the remainder of the game]."  

The times they aren't a-changin' 

So let me get this straight: coach Harbaugh allowed Smith to keep playing with a clear symptom of concussion in the hope that his blurred vision would go away.  Trouble is that, even under the three concussion grading systems in most common use in the 1990's and early 2000's (Dr. Bob Cantu's 2001 so-called "evidence-based" guidelines,1 the 1991 Colorado Medical Society (CMS) guidleines,2 and the 1997 American Academy of Neurology (AAN)3 guidelines) - all of which have long since gone the way of the dodo, by the way - and even if Smith's blurred vision had cleared up in less than 15 minutes, which, as it turned out, it didn't, he still would have been considered to have sustained a Grade 1 or mild concussion. That concussion should have ruled out any return to play last Sunday, not just while he was still experiencing symptoms, but even if they had cleared up.  His return to play would have been prohibited by law in the 41 states and the District of Columbia that have put in place - most at the urging and with the support of the NFL - of so-called Zackery Lystedt laws.  

Clearly, Harbaugh's mindset is still the rule not the exception, shared not only by current players and coaches, but former players sitting in the broadcast booth.  As Wise notes in his column, when Bear quarterback Jay Cutler went down after a helmet-to-helmet blow and yet stayed in the game against the Houston Texans (for a photograph of Cutler's Bears teammates helping their stunned and groggy QB to his feet after the hit, click here), NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth "paid him homage, calling Cutler, 'a real Bears quarterback," and "added that a review of the play would give Cutler a chance to 'clear the cobwebs' before action resumed."  

In other words, it was perfectly okay, in the view of Collinsworth, and Harbaugh, and in the macho culture of football, from Pop Warner to the NFL, for a player to suffer a concussion, but, as long as the "cobwebs" (e.g. confusional state) or the blurred vision (a symptom of concussion experienced by 37.5% of concussed high school athletes in a recent study) cleared up, it is somehow okay to send the player right back onto the field.

News flash: It is NOT okay! To Wise, the "only way real change happens is if Jim Harbaugh doesn't leave Alex Smith in that game for six more plays; if Cris Collinsworth skewers the Bears' medical team for not checking on a groggy Jay Cutler; if Ray Lewis tells kids, via a PSA, why hard hits are okay and headhunting isn't; and, yes, if Drew Brees, a son of football-made Texas, has the guts to tell America his kid isn't playing tackle football before age 14."  

I couldn't agree more, even on Wise's last point about Drew Brees.  My position has consistently been and continues to be that it is up to parents to make decisions about their own kids' safety, and that the best thing I, MomsTEAM, the CDC, concussion experts, coaches, athletic trainers, and national governing bodies for football, from Pop Warner to USA Football to the NFL, can do is to (a) continue to do what we can and are doing doing to make the game safer (and that there remains a great deal of work to be done in this area is undeniable); and (b) provide accurate, objective information about the risks so that such decision is an informed one, not one driven by fear.

Biggest challenge 

Which brings me to Roger Goodell's lecture yesterday at the Harvard School of Public Health.  As the Twittersphere and today's Boston Globe reported, and as I was glad to make it back to Boston to hear him say in person, Goodell recognized that changing the culture of the NFL was not only his most important mission as commissioner but also the "biggest challenge" the league, and by extension, football at every level, faces.  Goodell acknowledged that the culture of silence is alive and well; that too many players still hide concussions, and have a "play through, rather than a play safe mentality."    

But, as one who who believes, like an increasing number of concussion experts, that the best way to increase the chances that a concussion will be identified immediately after injury is to utilize a technological "end-around" the problem of chronic under-reporting by players, I was also heartened to hear Commissioner Goodell talk about how the league is testing the use of accelerometers (e.g. hit sensors) in helmets and even in shoulder pads, not to replace self-reporting of symptoms by players or detection of concussion signs by sideline personnel or in the booth, but as another "tool in the concussion toolbox" or another pair of eyes.  

If I have learned anything over the past twelve years of following the advances in our knowledge of concussion, both in terms of reducing the risk and in terms of better identification and post-concussion management and return to play, it is that an "all-of-the-above" strategy is the one that we need to employ because it has the best chance of making the game safer. 

 


1. Cantu RC. Posttraumatic retrograde and anterograde amnesia, pathophysiology and implications in grading and safe return to play. J Athl Train. 2001;36(1):244-248.

2. Colorado Medical Society. Report of the Sports Medicine Committee: Guidelines for the Management of Concussions in Sport (Revised). Denver, CO: Colorado Medical Society; 1991.

3. American Academy of Neurology. Practice parameter: the management of concussion in sports (summary statement). Report of the Quality Standards Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology. Neurology. 1997;48(3):581-585.

4. Halstead, M, Walter, K. "Clinical Report - Sport-Related Concussion in Children and Adolescents"  Pediatrics. 2010;126(3):597-615.
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Pediatrics Group's Position on Tackling in Youth Football Strikes Right Balance

Last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) endorsed efforts to limit contact practices in youth football, but declined to make a clear recommendation in favor of delaying the age at which tackling is introduced. The AAP likewise refused to support those calling for an outright ban on tackling in football for athletes below age 18, unwilling to recommend at this time such a fundamental change in the way the game is played.

Youth football players stretching

Writing for the AAP's Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness, William Meehan, M.D., Director of The Micheli Center for Sports Injury Prevention at Boston Children's Hospital, MomsTEAM concussion expert emeritus, and an expert featured in our PBS documentary, The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer, along with co-author, Gregory Landry, M.D., a professor of pediatric and adolescent primary care sports medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, recognized that head and neck injuries in football have been a topic of "intense interest recently in both the public media and the medical literature."

They acknowledged that safety concerns -- especially about the risk of concussions and catastrophic injuries -- have led to a drop in football participation, and likewise recognized that the potential for adverse long-term health consequences from multiple concussions and repetitive head impacts (RHI) had not only prompted calls for limits on the number of full-contact practices and a delay in the age in which tackling is introduced, but for an outright ban on tackling in football.

Noting that the effect of RHI on long-term cognitive function, the incidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and other health outcomes remains "unclear," and that further research was needed, the group nevertheless endorsed efforts to reduce the number of impacts to the head in football because, "Repetitive trauma to the head is of no clear benefit to the game of football or the health of football players."

The AAP saw in a delay in the age at which tackling is introduced both benefits (a likely decrease in risk of injury) and potential risks (once tackling was introduced, athletes lacking tackling experience might be exposed to an increased risk of injury). The group therefore decided that no "informed recommendation" could be made until further investigation into the effects of delaying the introduction of tackling until a certain age could be made.

Despite recognizing that an outright ban on tackling would likely lead to fewer injuries of every kind (e.g. overall injuries, severe injuries, catastrophic injuries, and concussions), the AAP decided against recommending a complete ban on tackle football, largely because removing tackling from the game would lead to a "fundamental change in the way the game is played." The group thus left it to "participants" to "decide whether the potential health risks of sustaining these injuries are outweighed by the recreational benefits associated with proper tackling."

Step in right direction

As someone who has been working for 15 years to make youth football safer, I was glad to see the nation's largest and most prestigious pediatrics group support so many of the evidence- and expert consensus-based recommendations MomsTEAM and I have been making to improve the safety of the game, and which were featured in our 2013 PBS documentary.

Like the AAP, MomsTEAM has long supported limits on full-contact practices as a way not only to reduce concussion risk but RHI, which likely plays a role in the development of neurodegenerative diseases such as CTE.

Research presented at the AAP's meeting in Washington, D.C. last month shows that such limits actually work to reduce concussion rates at the high school level (where an increasing number of states have followed the 2014 recommendation of the National Federation of State High School Associations in imposing limits), just as an earlier study showed that such limits (adopted by Pop Warner in 2012) -- along with teaching USA Football's Heads Up tackling -- are working to reduce concussion risk in youth football.

That the AAP decided not to join those calling for delaying the age at which tackling is introduced in youth football was not surprising. As one who has been following the debate on this issue for a number of years, and based on my experience working with youth football programs around the country the past two seasons as part of our SmartTeams program, I think there are good arguments on both sides, and that the AAP was right not to call for such a delay in the absence of more research.

Likewise, the AAP's refusal to recommend an outright ban on tackle football at the youth, middle and high school because it would fundamentally change the way the game is played was not in the least surprising. Like the AAP, I have long held the view that the decision about whether a child should play tackle football, and at what age to start, should be left up to parents, in consultation with their child's pediatrician, based on an honest assessment of the risks associated with the sport versus the benefits of participation.

Recent research shows that teaching proper tackling and limits on full-contact practices, along with other safety measures, such as making sure helmets fit properly, and immediately removing players showing any signs or reporting any symptoms of concussion and not allowing them to return until cleared by a medical professional with concussion expertise (all of which are part of the evidence-based Six Pillars approach to concussion risk management featured in The Smartest Team) has made and continues to make the game of football safer.

Still work to do

But there is still a lot we can and should do. Despite the fact that helmet-first tackling was banned in 1976, the sad truth is that the rule is still not adequately enforced. Perhaps adding the AAP's voice to the chorus of those calling for stricter rules enforcement (the NFHS, for one, has strengthened its rules against "targeting" defenseless players, and "spearing") will finally result in concrete action to do just that.

Likewise, working to put athletic trainers on the sidelines at all tackle football games and practices is a goal almost universally shared by the sports safety community. The challenge, as I have found from my experience working the last two years with youth football leagues around the country, is that not all programs can afford the cost of an athletic trainer; even if they could, finding one to provide coverage on weekends (when most are busy staffing high school football games) can be difficult. Simply put, there aren't enough ATs to go around, with access to ATs in rural communities -- where football is almost a way of life -- presenting a particular challenge).

Thus, while a certified athletic trainer at every youth football game and practice is the gold standard which I have long supported, and we have made significant progress in recent years towards the goal of giving every high school athlete access to an AT (a 2015 study published in the Journal of Athletic Training pegs the percentage at around 70%), I believe, from a practical standpoint, that programs for younger football players (those ages 7 to 12), forced to choose between hiring an AT and shutting down the program, can probably get by with game day coverage from volunteer paramedics, RNs and LPNs, or medical doctors (as long as they have received training in the recognition of concussion), and even from parents and coaches who have completed the CDC's Heads Up program (as parents and coaches in our Grand Prairie, TX SmartTeams pilot program are taking, along with a Red Cross first aid, CPR, and AED course).

If an athletic trainer or health care professional with concussion training is not present, however, experts say that there are two essential ground rules which must be followed: first, if a concussion is suspected (in other words if an athlete exhibits any signs of possible concussion (balance problems, confusion, vomiting, dazed look) or reports experiencing any symptoms (e.g. headache, dizziness, memory problems etc.), the player needs to be removed from play, their helmet taken away, and barred from returning to play under any circumstances; and, second, if a concussion is suspected, the athlete must be referred for a full evaluation by a clinician; no layperson is qualified to determine that it is safe for an athlete to return to play, no matter what the results of a sideline test may say, even one marketed for supposed use by non-medical personnel.

The under-reporting of concussions by athletes, as Bill Meehan and fellow MomsTEAM Institute board member, Jim MacDonald, reported at the AAP conference in D.C. in October, continues to defy efforts to persuade more athletes to honestly self-report through education. That culture of resistance, and the win-at-all-costs attitude that is deeply entrenched in our sports culture, represents significant challenges to improving the safety of contact and collision sports. Change is not going to happen overnight.

But efforts, including by MomsTEAM under a NCAA-Department of Defense Mind Matters Challenge grant, are being made to move the culture of sports towards safety by working with the key influencers of an athlete's attitudes and behavior -- parents, teammates, and, above all, coaches -- to create an environment in which athletes feel safe in self-reporting and are confident that they won't be penalized for reporting by a loss of playing time or being viewed as weak.

A multi-pronged approach to football safety, such as advocated by the AAP in its Policy Statement, and by the experts with whom I work on daily basis, is working. We just have to keep not just talking the talk, but walking the walk.


Brooke de Lench is Executive Director of the non-profit MomsTEAM Institute, founder and publisher of MomsTEAM.com, producer of The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer (PBS), and author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins). You can follow Brooke on Twitter @brookedelench and reach her by email at delench@momsteam.com.

Originally published on October 28, 2015 on Huffington Post.com  

 

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U.S. Failure To Ratify UN Convention on Rights of the Child Is Embarrassing and Unacceptable

ORIGINALLY POSTED IN HUFFINGTON POST 10/9/15 

Ten days ago, as I was flying 30,000 feet above Jonesboro, Arkansas on my way back to Boston  from Dallas, I read about a statement issued by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon praising the ratification by the Government of Somalia of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Noting that 196 countries had ratified the Convention, making it the most widely-ratified human rights convention in history, the Secretary-General went on to encourage the United States, as the only holdout, "to join the global movement and help the world reach the objective of universal ratification."

The Convention spells out the basic human rights that children everywhere should enjoy, among them the right to survival, to develop to the fullest, and to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation. While its most obvious application is in combating such abhorrent practices as the 'recruitment' of child soldiers and the sexual slavery of teenage girls, and in protecting the rights of the thousands of children fleeing to Europe to escape war-torn Middle Eastern nations, the Convention also provides, in the words of a 2010 Unicef report, "the overarching framework that can guide those who provide and supervise sport for children," with application to such abusive practices as forcing children to train excessively and to engage in unhealthy and illegal behavior, such as the use of performance-enhancing drugs (Articles 3, 6, 19 and 24), ensuring that a child's right to an education is not overshadowed by considerations concerning a sporting career (Articles 3 and 28), and the economic exploitation of child athletes (Article 32).

UN Convention On The Rights of The Child 

As someone who has been advocating for ratification That I was reading the Secretary-General's statement after having just wound up four days of intensive work with a league of 1,200 youth football players and cheerleaders to implement the International Safeguards as part of my organization's SmartTeam program, and during National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month, made me feel that much worse.  

 

There has been a strong focus in recent years in this country on concussion safety in youth sports, much of it media-driven (all 50 states and the District of Columbia now have concussion safety laws).

Brooke with kids from Grand Prairie in SmarTeams program

Sadly, no similar, sustained effort has been made in this country to enact laws to protect children playing sports from abuse -- whether it be physical, emotional, psychological or sexual -- at the hands of coaches, parents and other athletes.

When reports, such as the 2010 Unicef study on violence and abuse in sports, are issued finding a troubling lack of awareness of and education on child protection issues among youth sports coaches, parents and other stakeholders, they receive absolutely no media attention in this country.

Why not?

It can't be because children playing sports in this country are immune from abuse, because they are not. The sad fact is that youth athletes are victims of violence and abuse in their myriad forms every day. Young athletes across the country are still forced to participate in physically injurious or sexually degrading hazing rituals; they're required to run punishment laps in 102 degree heat for being late to practice; and allowed, or often encouraged, to play hurt or return to the playing field too soon after a concussion.

Too many are victims of bullying, not just by other players but by coaches; sexually assaulted by their coaches; psychologically degraded or humiliated based on their gender, sexual orientation, body shape or performance; or required or encouraged to follow nutrition and weight loss regimens that lead to eating disorders and the abuse of appearance- and performance-enhancing drugs such as anabolic-androgenic steroids.

The kinds of abuse we see in youth sports would not be tolerated in the classroom or in the workplace. Yet there are no laws that specifically address such abuse in the context of sports, and no sustained lobbying efforts to enact such protections.

The lack of media attention and legislative action also can't be because youth sports organizations, whether they be at the national, regional or local level, are doing all they can to protect children against such violence and abuse. As the 2010 UNICEF study reports, while some other countries (most notably, the United Kingdom) have enacted child protection programs in sport, they are virtually non-existent in the United States.

A major part of the problem is that instead of defining youth athletes in a way appropriate to their needs -- as children first and athletes second -- organized youth sports in the United States and other industrialized countries all too often treat children as miniature adults, with potentially serious adverse consequences to their physical and emotional health. More and more parents seem to accept abuse as the inevitable price their children must pay to succeed in our winner-take-all-society.

Child abuse is the most preventable youth sport injury. Physical, emotional and sexual abuse should not be the price children have to pay to play competitive sports. The status quo should and must be changed. The United States should ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Laws against child abuse should be strengthened in every state to protect against abuse, not just at home, but on the playing field, courts, diamonds and rinks of America. It is time for the abuse to stop. We owe the children of America nothing less.


Brooke de Lench is Founding Executive Director of MomsTEAM Institute of Youth Sports Safety, Founder and Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, producer of The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer (PBS), and author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins). You can follow Brooke on Twitter @brookedelench and email her at delench@momsteam.com

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