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updated: 10/24/2012 8:52 PM

Brain matters: uncomfortable but necessary discussion

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Football's dangers are easily forgotten this week as the Illinois state playoffs begin.

Bands will play, cheerleaders will lead cheers, and fans will applaud remarkable performances by remarkable young athletes.

Communities around the state look forward not only to the games but also to the pageantry surrounding them.

I'm with them, preparing to follow the results and maybe even attend a game.

But then there was this nagging headline on Wednesday's web edition of The New York Times: "A Town's Passion for Football, a Retired Doctor's Concern."

Paul Butler was a surgeon and now is a member of the school board in Dover, N.H.

According to the Times, "Butler warned his fellow board members that if city officials did not end football at Dover High, 'the lawyers will do it for us' someday."

Butler placed prep football in the context of a lawsuit filed by thousands of former NFL players alleging the league didn't adequately warn them of head trauma and concussions.

The retired doctor/current school board member is quoted as saying, "Our brain is really who we are" and "we have a moral imperative to at least begin the process of ending the game in Dover."

Many people from New Hampshire to New York and New York to Wheaton and Wheaton to Palatine and Illinois to California have begun worrying about the impact of football, soccer, lacrosse and other sports on the health of teenagers.

"Big heads on little necks," is how Butler characterized the vulnerability of young people.

Butler admits he doesn't have enough votes among fellow school board members for a recommendation to end football at Dover High.

But Butler is piling on, adding to the health concern the financial consideration that lawsuits will filter down to the prep level.

No school district has that much discretionary cash, does it?

What Butler has done, at least, is initiate a dialogue in Dover and the surrounding area about football's risks.

Butler acknowledges that steps have been taken to address the situation. He also says, "Limiting contact in practice is like (putting) filters on cigarettes."

That's one of the problems with concussions whether we're talking New Hampshire, Illinois or anywhere else: Warnings, precautions and treatments are instituted, but prevention is impossible.

Young athletes in several sports nationwide suffer head injuries inherent in their games.

The primary question is whether risks outweigh rewards like camaraderie, teamwork and the ever-popular "building character."

Should we allow our children to play these sports? Are the games' benefits worth the health hazards? Do other activities provide a similar upside without a similar downside?

I'm not as close to high school sports as in the past, or to school boards, so I wonder whether an appropriate balance is being struck between preserving kids and preserving athletics.

Every school district could use a Dr. Butler to raise publicly the issues that certainly are being raised privately in family rooms at home and teachers' rooms at school.

"I appreciate his concern," the Times quoted Dover High athletic director Peter Wotton as saying of Butler. "This might end up being a good thing in the end. It's just a semipainful way to get there."

In other words, the discussion is uncomfortable but needs to be conducted.

Yes, even this week amid the pageantry of the state football playoffs.

If the brain really is who we are, there has to be concern over what these young athletes will become.

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