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UNC researcher looks to rules to combat football-related brain injuries

Football officials must throw more flags to protect high school football players from serious brain injuries, according to Dr. Fred Mueller, one of the authors of the annual survey of catastrophic football injuries.

Last year, 13 high school football players suffered catastrophic brain injuries, the most recorded since the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research began tracking brain injuries in 1984, according to data released last week.

“In the 1960s and ’70s, we had a spike in deaths and catastrophic injuries in high school football,” Mueller said. “There were rules changes in 1976 that made it illegal to lead with the head while tackling or blocking, and the safety improved dramatically.

“It is too early to say for sure yet – we need a couple of more years’ data – but I fear we are headed back up.”

Mueller said the solution for the increase in brain injuries is for coaches to do a better job of teaching the proper techniques and for officials to call more violations.

“You don’t see a lot of flags thrown for leading with the head,” Mueller said. “But if the officials will call it, the coaches will make sure they teach it.”

The National Federation of State High School Associations, which writes the rules for high school football, has made rule changes in an effort to reduce head injuries, including concussions. The run-up distance on kickoffs has been shortened, and players who lose their helmets will be sent to the sidelines.

“There is no doubt that the high school players are being influenced by what they are seeing in the NFL,” Mueller said.

“The emphasis on the big hit with the excitement of the announcers and the playing of the hit over and over in replays is having an impact. And the thoughts of a bounty system for injuring players is disturbing.”

Mueller said fewer players are dying from head injuries because many are receiving good medical care earlier than in the past.

The National Federation’s Bob Colgate, who works with safety and sports medicine, said the group would discuss ways to make football safer during meetings this spring.

Statistically, the chance of a catastrophic brain injury is very small. There were approximately 1.5 million high school and junior high football players during the 2011 season.

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