August 18, 2017

Be Our Guest / Bruce Scifres

Youth football changes lives

Bruce ScifresAfter spending 37 years of my life as a high school teacher and football coach, the last 27 years as the head football coach at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis, I feel compelled to write to share thoughts on the value of youth athletics in general, and would like to focus on youth football in particular.

As I was driving to work recently, I heard a radio host mention a recent study that stated that out of 111 brains of former NFL players, all but one showed signs of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) from repeated head trauma. She shared that all three of her sons play youth football, but after hearing this report, she wasn’t sure if she wanted her sons to continue playing.

As the father of two sons who played Catholic Youth Organization (CYO), high school and college football—and I likewise played high school and college football—I hope to address some of the misleading information that is running rampant in today’s media.

As I read this study by Dr. Ann McKee, she admits that “there is a tremendous selection bias” in the study, in that most of the brains had been donated specifically because they had shown symptoms of CTE, so it was not a random sampling of former NFL players’ brains. They knew beforehand there were problems.

Secondly, a majority of the brains were taken from players who were over 70 years old at the time of death. This means most of these men had played back in the 1950’s and 1960’s when they were just phasing from leather helmets to plastic. The padding in these early plastic helmets was very different from today, and some of the helmets did not have facemasks at that time.

I am in no way trying to diminish the importance of protecting our youth from injury, especially head injuries. But in fact the game of football is safer today than it has ever been.

Helmets and shoulder pads are so much safer now than even 15 years ago, and new “Heads Up” tackling and blocking techniques are being taught across the country.

Two weeks ago, we had 40 CYO football coaches at the Indianapolis Colts facility receiving this “Heads Up” training.

Also, through the generosity of Indy Sports Foundation, all CYO football coaches in the archdiocese will be getting their USA Football Heads Up certifications paid for, providing technique and safety training for every coach in the league.

As the new executive director of CYO, I am very proud that the league is following through with this initiative. Without question, the health and safety of our players is top priority, and we want parents to know we are doing everything we can to keep your children safe.

One final thought I would like to share: A couple of years ago, our athletic trainer at Roncalli shared that football was ranked third that year on the sports concussion list. At the top of the list was girls’ soccer, next was girls’ cheerleading, then football was next.

My point here is that almost all youth activities that are physical in nature—including bicycle riding and skateboarding—carry some risk of injury.

Please know that the CYO is doing everything possible to make football as safe as we can—your kids deserve that!

In my 37 years of coaching football, I have learned the game is an unbelievable platform to change lives for the better. Few activities can match the game’s ability to transform young athletes physically, mentally, emotionally, and perhaps most importantly, spiritually.

It is our hope that our families will consider this in light of the misleading information that has been splashed across the media in recent months. Again, I am very honored to be a part of these safety measures taken by the CYO for your children. God bless!

(Bruce Scifres is executive director of the Catholic Youth Organization.)

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