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Padecky: Plenty of questions remain on football, concussions

A concussion is a very nasty form of brain pinball. The brain bounces back and forth against the skull; in the process, a concussion can make something like counting to three seem like higher math and a simple laugh feel like electric shock treatment.

“I think it’s safe to say it’s not a good idea to hit your head on something,” said Ben Lynch, who played football for Analy, Cal and the 49ers. “I think most people would agree with that.”

And I would think most people interested in sports would already know about the deleterious consequences of an untreated concussion. I would think after the tragedy of Junior Seau, after the latest concussion headline that is Wes Welker, after the seemingly endless concussion stories, U.S. Congressman Mike Thompson wouldn’t have needed to do what he did Monday afternoon at Santa Rosa JC.

It was a concussion seminar. Lynch was there. So were physicians and athletic trainers. It was the third time this month Thompson held such an event, the two previous in Contra Costa and Lake counties. The audio-visual displays were dramatic, the information detailed and the message clear — coaches, parents, administrators and athletes better ramp it up. Lives depend on it. We’ve been hearing this message longer than Junior Seau has been dead.

So why the necessity to hold still another public forum?

The answer is contained in the response to a question posed to the panel. Would you let your 8-year-old son play Pop Warner (tackle) football?

Dr. Robert Nied, the Kaiser physician who helped write concussion guidelines for the CIF, and Dr. Ty Affleck, physician to SRJC and Sonoma State athletics teams, both had the same answer. They would inform their son of the risks. They said most sports contain physical risks. Nied told of a friend, a mixed martial artist, who received a concussion from a swinging cabinet door.

“If someone really wanted to play a sport,” Dr. Affleck said, “I wouldn’t stop him from playing. There are so many benefits derived from playing.”

Fair enough. Accurate enough. An informed athlete approaches a sport intelligently, makes smart decisions, and learns lessons to take into adulthood. A sport’s benefit can last long after a playing career.

On the other hand …

“I don’t have a son,” said Lynch, a bachelor. “But if I did, I wouldn’t let him play football.”

At age 8?

“At any level,” said Lynch, 41. “There’s still so much we don’t know about concussions. There’s so much unknown. This is just my opinion. It’s the right decision for me but that doesn’t mean it’s the right decision for everybody.”

Lynch, a center, played six seasons in the NFL, four with the 49ers. He has volunteered to have his brain donated to scientific research upon his death. He estimated he suffered “at least a dozen” concussions in his career.

“But I was never knocked unconscious,” Lynch said proudly.

Lynch and the two physicians offer opposing views, both reasonable, both valid. A sport offers clear-cut winners and losers but concussions do not. Like the brain after it has been treated like a piñata, the topic gets a little fuzzy when the discussion is extended.

“There are no (conclusive) tests yet,” Lynch said. “There are still two big questions that need to be answered. When do you know you have suffered a concussion? And when is it safe to return to play? There’s so much gray area.”

And there is a third question: What are the long-term effects?

Lynch wants answers. The docs want answers. Parents want answers. That’s why there are seminars. The answers, Bob Dylan might say, are still blowing in the wind.

As we continue to move slowly but inevitably past a cliché.

You got your bell rung, dude.

Seminars like Monday’s are changing the history of that rhetoric and response. Suicides like Dave Duerson’s and Junior Seau’s have moved traumatic brain injury from an innocuous catchphrase to a serious discussion.

Nied and Affleck both maintain that having certified athletic trainers on the sideline of football games dramatically improves recognition and treatment.

“But Seau had a trainer on his sideline,” Lynch said, “and look what happened to him.”

In fairness, as opposed to today’s game, the NFL of Junior Seau’s day was ignorant — maybe even willfully so — of concussion data and research.

One commonality, however, remains from the time Lynch played (1997-2002). Welker, the Denver wide receiver, provides the quintessential example.

“I was where Welker is now — football is the only thing in his world,” said Lynch, working on his master’s of business administration at Cal. “You have that focus. You need that focus to stay in the NFL. I didn’t realize until after I retired how much life I still had to live. Wes Welker sees football as such a huge part of his life. Like it’s the only thing in the world.

“What you do in the NFL is sacrifice a lot of things to play the game. Will Welker continue to sacrifice or will he realize he has a life to live?”

Lynch won’t judge Welker for either decision, just as he wouldn’t criticize those who let their kids play tackle football at age 8. There are no absolutes and that realization makes Lynch even more uncomfortable.

“Why is it that some players suffer and some don’t?” said Lynch, who had eight surgeries.

Lynch sees more questions than answers. That’s what happens when a monolith like the NFL has failed to address the issue. It has felt no compunction to change because damaged players are not good for business. That, and there are so many replaceable parts available, players willing and ready to play. The NFL has been and will continue to need to be pushed into acknowledging severe head trauma and its financial response to it.

That the issue is still in its embryonic stage is obvious. Thompson’s three seminars in August attest to that. When will the day come when it will be unnecessary to hold such public forums?

I offered: “When the kids who play football today have kids of their own, and when those kids have kids, by then the research will give us the answers. About in another 20-30 years, I’m guessing.”

Both doctors nodded politely. Maybe, they were saying without saying. Who knows? Maybe more cases like Junior Seau have to shock us to push the research along. Maybe. In the meantime the clock ticks, for the thousands of players who have played in the NFL and the thousands yet to play. Brothers all, they wait, as Ben Lynch is waiting.

“I can’t help but wonder,” Lynch told the audience, “what’s on my horizon.”

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