It all started with a question millions of parents in America ask every football season.
Should I let my son play?
Noah Riley was a 90-pound incoming freshman at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, California. He was barely big enough to see over the line of scrimmage, let alone withstand a collision. But Noah wanted to be a quarterback like his dad.
Ed Riley grew up on the sidelines in Corvallis, Oregon. His father, Bud, coached at Oregon State. His older brother, Mike, led Corvallis High to a state championship before playing for Bear Bryant at Alabama. Football was a family religion, and Ed believed in its core values.
Teamwork and responsibility. Sportsmanship and sacrifice. Discipline, resilience and toughness.
A football team, Ed says, provides a place for every dedicated kid, no matter his size, speed or socioeconomic status. A football team has the power to unite a community.
But at Gunn, one of the most prestigious high schools in the country, more and more parents in the fall of 2011 were saying no to football. Too dangerous, they said. They’d read about former NFL players committing suicide. They’d heard about a mysterious disease called CTE. In a school of 2,000 students, only 20 were playing varsity football.
For Ed Riley, who had spent half his life in the medical profession, the issue was no longer theoretical, it was personal. He had to make a decision about his son.
“I was really concerned. Is this really safe for him to be out there?”
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On Christmas day, as another riveting football season approaches its climax, millions of Americans will see the game as they’ve never seen it before. Under the microscope and on the big screen.
“Concussion,” starring Will Smith, tells the story of Dr. Bennett Omalu, whose research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy helped expose the NFL’s concussion crisis.
Omalu’s concerns don’t end with the NFL, though. The New York Times on Monday published an op-ed by Omalu. The headline: “Don’t let kids play football.”
Just as there is a legal age for drinking, smoking and driving, Omalu writes, the same precautions must be applied to protect the brain.
“No adult, not a parent or a coach, should be allowed to make this potentially life-altering decision for a child.”
The next day, Julian Bailes, a colleague of Omalu’s who is portrayed in the movie by Alec Baldwin, responded via teleconference.
“I’m a big believer in the benefits of organized sports, and the benefits of football,” Bailes said. “I have two children who play football. And I think football is safer than it’s ever been.”
Omalu and Bailes are not the only voices in the debate. Over the past five years, new concussion studies have hit the mainstream seemingly every few months. Some paint a bleak picture. Some suggest the firestorm is overblown. All raise questions about the future of football. Is it safe enough? Do the merits of the game trump the risks?
Those were the questions Ed Riley asked himself four years ago. He didn’t exactly plan it, but his whole life had prepared him for his decision.
Following his parents’ move to Canada in 1972, Ed played high school quarterback on the frozen fields of Regina and Winnipeg. Once in practice, he was tripped while backpedaling, his helmet smacking the ground and jarring his head. He suffered another concussion at Whitworth College and slept in the student trainer’s dorm room, where he was woken up every hour as a precaution.
As big brother Mike pursued coaching, Ed opted for medical school at Washington, then residency at Stanford, where he’s worked since 1990. The anesthesiology professor spends 30 hours a week working with residents and patients, the other 30 committed to education and research.
When Noah started high school, Ed started digging into concussions, highlighting the most compelling data. He sought long-range studies with a defined control group. One caught his eye.
The Mayo Clinic studied all high school football players in Rochester, Minnesota, from 1946 to 1956 and determined no increased risk of degenerative neurological diseases later in life. Football players were no more susceptible to dementia, Parkinson’s Disease or ALS than members of the band, glee club or choir.
Brain studies provide important information, but “long-term outcome studies are what matter for decision-making in medicine.”
Another study found that NFL players from 1959 to 1988 had a 3 percent chance of developing a neurological disease before death, compared to a 1 percent chance among the public. But “playing in the NFL and playing high school football are completely different risks exposures,” Riley says.
Ed made up his mind. Noah could play. Now it was time to recruit.
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Ed’s late wife didn’t think their sons should play. But you grew up riding horses, Ed told her. Football is safer than that.
Ed’s friend in the Stanford urology department didn’t think his own boys should play. But you take your kids skiing, Ed told him. Football is safer than that.
This is the nuance in Riley’s position.
Football can lead to life-altering injuries, Riley says, but there’s risk in everything a teenager does. And head-injury rates in football aren’t considerably different from those in soccer or gymnastics, hockey or lacrosse, cycling or rock climbing.
Parents aren’t looking at it logically, Riley says. What is your son going to do if he doesn’t play football? Drive around in his car on Friday night? That’s just as dangerous.
“There’s a great line in a Neil Young song, ‘They were poisoned with protection,’ ” Riley said. “In some ways, we’re so overprotective of our kids we’re not letting them have the full experiences of life.”
As Noah started high school, he shared his dad’s opinion with classmates. Some persuaded their parents, some didn’t. Then Ed took the next step. He felt a responsibility to spread the word.
Last December, the exact day Nebraska announced Mike Riley as its new head coach, the Portland Tribune published an op-ed by his less famous brother.
“To all you parents who are keeping your sons from playing football,” Ed writes, “I say, ‘Let them play.’ ”
There is a caveat to Ed’s endorsement. Football should be a game of blocking and tackling, he says, “not a legal avenue to take someone’s head off.”
“If there’s one thing that we need to address at all levels of football, but especially high school, it’s that the helmet has become a weapon.”
Bud Riley used to tell his sons that players didn’t tackle this way 50 years ago. Look at Nathan Gerry’s collision with Iowa receiver Tevaun Smith, which prompted the Husker safety’s ejection. In his father’s era, Ed says, “they both would’ve come up dead if they had hit each other like that.”
High-speed hits are the leading cause of concussions. And the better helmets get, ironically, the more comfortable players are launching their heads into contact. That’s why head injuries among rugby players, Riley says, actually increased when they started wearing helmets.
Fixing the problem includes proper tackling technique — keep your head up. It includes strict consequences for helmet-to-helmet contact.
“We clearly have to get away from using heads as battering rams,” Ed says.
Ed hasn’t seen “Concussion” yet. He anticipates that some people will leave the theater in fear. He hopes the movie strikes a balance.
“Hopefully, people realize that we don’t need to get rid of football; we just need to make it better.”
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Noah Riley started at quarterback as a 125-pound junior. His final two years, Gunn High School went 2-18, completing Noah’s senior season with 14 players.
But an interesting thing happened on senior night. During player introductions before a 51-21 loss, the public-address announcer read the senior farewells.
From Fred Li, No. 54: “My most memorable moment was on the first day of freshman year when Noah Riley came up to me and got me to join football. Thank God he did. Football has taught me so much about teamwork, leadership and responsibility as well as created friendships that will stay with me for my entire life.”
From Jonah Wager, No. 60: “I’d like to thank Noah for getting me out to play football and becoming an offensive lineman. I hope to have a career in medicine, such as a surgeon or physical therapist. And would love to come back to Gunn and help coach if I can.”
Ed isn’t sure that Gunn High School, which went 0-10 this fall, will even field a team in 2016. But he’ll keep promoting the game his brother Mike coaches at Nebraska, the game his 180-pound son Noah will play at Whitworth College, the game that has given him too many memories to count. Yes, bad things can happen when a kid puts on his helmet, Ed says.
“It’s worth the risk.”
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