Birds, brains and football

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the futile and misdirected nature of protests against rules that limit the number of night football games here on island because of concerns for the survival of the endangered Newell’s shearwater.

Many parents, spectators and public officials argued that by playing football games on hot Saturday afternoons, Kauai was somehow putting birds before people and pointed to the dangers to high school athletes from heat-related injury or illness.

The argument degenerates to irrelevance, however, when you remember that high school football teams practice several days a week in that same afternoon heat, usually wearing their protective gear. Maybe the brouhaha was really about spectators not enjoying the heat, and not the safety of student athletes.

Pitting the shearwater against Kauai high school football has been going on for many years. Throughout that time, the controversy has ignored the extremely serious issue of the greatest risk in high school football on our island: brain concussions.

Many parents and football fans may see the focus on concussions as, somehow, betraying the tradition where teenaged athletes suck it up, take the hit and keep on playing — brain injury or not. A recent report by the Concussion Management Program for Interscholastic Student/Athletes in Hawaii High Schools — issued just last month — establishes that concussions are a problem in 14 different high school sports, with football leading the pack by a wide margin.

Here on Kauai, in the period covering football season in 2015, 33 young men suffered concussions — 11 at Kapaa High School, 10 at Kauai High School and 12 at Waimea High School.

Those numbers alone should be enough to get the community’s attention. And if they don’t, the total toll to concussions in Kauai high school sports from 2010 to 2016 was an astonishing 238: 85 at Kapaa High, 62 at Kauai High and 91 at Waimea High. Although these numbers are for all 14 sports — which also include boys’ and girls’ soccer, basketball, wrestling, volleyball, judo, baseball and, of all things, cheerleading, statewide figures in this new report underscore the reality that football is, exponentially, the biggest offender.

Statewide, 198 boys suffered concussions in the 2010-11 school year and 316 in the last school year. It’s been even worse. There were 438 concussions statewide from football in the 2013-14 school year.

Kauai’s small size, to a certain extent, masks the truly astonishing magnitude of the high school sports concussion epidemic in the state. From 2010 to 2016, there were 312 concussions reported at Mililani High School on Oahu and 256 at Moanalua High and 290 at Leilehua High, also on Oahu.

In Hawaii, as elsewhere, concussion awareness has been propelled by revelations of deaths and disabling brain injuries in the National Football League, which spent many years trying to cover the problem up before the overwhelming weight of medical evidence made it impossible to continue the deception that football did not cause brain damage, debilitation and death to its players. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has been implicated in the death and disability of dozens of NFL players, Junior Seau being but one tragic case. In 2013, the NFL reached a settlement with 4,500 players or their estates for injuries sustained while playing football.

By a crude measure, Kauai high schools appear to have the greatest percentage of concussions among high school athletes who undergo an annual evaluation for concussion risk. But Dr. Nathan Murata, the state’s leading concussion expert at the University Hawaii at Manoa, said the real answer to question of whether there are significant variations in concussion incidence from island to island is not yet something experts can provide.

“It’s a good question that (we) cannot explain,” he said in an email exchange with me in early October. “There are many variables and factors that could begin to explain such differences and our information does not lend (itself) to making any inference regarding differences in concussion rates among the schools.”

The problem has gotten the attention of the Legislature and medical experts here. For a decade, the Hawaii Department of Health has supported the work of the State Traumatic Brain Injury Advisory Board, which meets monthly. Earlier this year, Gov. David Ige signed a bill that made Hawaii the first state in the country to require a certified athletic trainer to work at every high school in the state. The requirement only took effect in July, so there is no way yet to determine if requiring this kind of resource at all high schools will rein in the problem.

What does this have to do with Kauai families, Friday night football and birds? Possibly nothing directly, except that the concern is misguided. The largely unacknowledged tragedy of high school sports concussions on our island, as well as the rest of Hawaii, is what parents of high school athletes, their teachers, their school administrators, their coaches and — most of all — themselves should be where our attention is focused.

That the Newell’s shearwater should prevail in the controversy over Friday night football isn’t much of a question. The bird has a place and history on Kauai that make its survival unquestionably worthwhile and necessary, even at the expense of rescheduling a few football games.

But for people who obsess and speak out in a hostile way about a bird spoiling their fun, a healthier approach would be to realize that, whether it’s on Friday night or Saturday afternoon, some teenage boys on Kauai are literally beating their brains out — and a situation akin to Nero fiddling while Rome burned can be seen in the unfortunate lack of awareness or concern about brain injuries in Kauai high school athletes.

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Allan Parachini is a former journalist and PR executive. He is a Kilauea resident.

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