By William Nguyen
Emiliano Soranso was five minutes into the first quarter of a football game at South Pasadena High School. He was lightheaded from the last play, but he didn’t think anything of it. The next thing the cornerback remembered was waking up on the sidelines with four minutes left in the half.
He found out he tackled the other team’s quarterback a little too high—just enough for him to get hit square on the side of the head.
“It was a perfect temple shot, and I just went down,” the high school alumnus said.
Concerned with football’s CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) risk, mainly caused by repeated brain trauma, South Pasadena resident Joseph Charney is pushing to end the youth and high school football programs.
CTE is a progressive, degenerative brain disease with symptoms such as cognitive dysfunction, confusion, memory loss and impaired judgment according to Dr. Charles Liu, Director of the University of Southern California Neurorestoration Center.
In an open letter earlier this year titled “Farewell to Football?” in the South Pasadena Star, Charney urged South Pasadena Unified School District board members to consider the sport’s risks in light of recent studies published on the disease.
It isn’t clear what ultimately will result from engaging this issue in a responsible way. “Unlike smoking, high school football has been a positive force in the lives of youth, their families as well as the community. Losing it would be painful, and for many aspiring players…tragic. But subjecting teenage boys to traumas that will lead to brain disease is unacceptable and we can and should no longer pretend that the dangers can be ignored,” Charney wrote in his letter.
At a minimum, the public, educational institutions and parents need to understand what the dangers are in participating in the sport as providers, participants or fans. There is a moral imperative here that can’t responsibly be denied.
The district’s School Board President Jon Primuth said he would like to see more studies in addition to the one Charney cited in his open letter before taking further action. Until then, he said the board is going to rely on the high school’s athletic department and administration for guidance.
“I’ve been at this for a while, so [Charney’s concerns] didn’t really surprise me,” SPHS football coach Jeff Chi said. Chi, who has nearly 30 years of experience coaching football, was an assistant coach for two years at SPHS before becoming head coach last fall.
In light of the sport’s risks, Soranso doesn’t regret his four-year-run as a SPHS Tiger.
“I made some of my best friends that I know for a fact are going to last as long as I live because of the sport,” he said.
Chi’s son, Gavin, is a senior that played on the team last school year.
“My wife would always say that if our son got hurt, she’d pull him out of the program,” he said. “That was one of the reasons I wanted to coach, so I could teach [the team] how to play football correctly to prevent such injuries.”
He teaches his players “Hawk” tackling, a technique devised by the Seattle Seahawks to reduce the chance of head collisions. To his current players, there’s an intrinsic value to playing on the football team.
“I’ve gained a lot of personal character from [football]. [Chi] teaches you how to present yourself and how to be a good person; always practice, be honest and stay humble,” junior quarterback Jaden Gallegos said.
As more NFL players with CTE are coming forward, concern gained traction in the last 15 years. Former Packers quarterback Brett Favre once said on Today that he would be “leery” if he had a son that played football.
U.S. high school football participation had peaked at 1.11 million players in 2008 before declining by almost five percent to 1.06 million players in 2017, according to a national study by JAMA Pediatrics
“This decline is associated with media attention focused on concussions or brain injuries among football players,” Dr. Chris Feudtner, study co-author of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told Reuters.
Dr. Liu doesn’t see a clear-cut causal association between CTE and the factors that would put someone at risk for developing it. He likens this to smoking, where there’s an off-chance a person will not end up developing lung cancer because of their genetics.
“Nobody questions whether smoking is good or bad for you, but the effect of it on any individual person has a large individual component to it,” he said. “If it were that obvious, there’d be no discussion.”
Chi and Charney have different opinions on who should decide whether kids can play football.
“I think [concerned parents] have a choice to say ‘Yeah, I’m not going to let my kid play.’ But you can’t take that right away from the other parents that say, ‘You know what, this is going to be good for my kid, give me that choice, so don’t take it away from us,’ you know?,” Chi said.
“The decision can’t be left to parents—or is it one to be decided at the ballot box? Ultimately, [it] must be made by this board,” Charney told board members at the South Pasadena Unified School District Meeting in February.
“[Football is] culture, it’s confidence. I hope that this isn’t just a single conversation that we’re having,” said SPUSD board member Michele Kipke.
“A parent came to me with a concern. I don’t think of it as an issue,” Primuth said. “If there’s a medical professional at [the California Interscholastic Foundation] or in the district who brings this to the board, then we will certainly take it up.”