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New Orleans - It defies logic that there are now far more precautions taken to protect NFL players from head trauma than youth and high school football players, said several current or former NFL players speaking on behalf of a group advocating safer sports.
The Sports Legacy Group visited the Super Bowl media center Friday to announce it was launching a national campaign to encourage youth and high school football programs to drastically curb or eliminate contact practices during the offseason.
"This is low-hanging fruit. This is a great way to reduce the amount of hits," said former NFL fullback Kevin Turner, his speech slurred slightly because of his struggle with the neuro-muscular disease ALS. "It's also a great way to teach a team how to practice without pads, and if they can get that done, it will be so much better."
While scientists and researchers have yet to uncover a conclusive link between head trauma and ALS, a terminal disease which gradually reduces muscle control throughout the body, there are higher documented instances of ALS among pro football players than the general population.
Mounting scientific evidence points to a variety of brain disease resulting from repetitive hits to the head, even if many of those hits do not result in concussions.
"It's absurd that we would let third and fourth graders hit each other," said former NFL linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer, who retired from pro football after being diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome. "For every NFL sideline where there are 10 trainers and six doctors watching every person on the field, there are countless youth and high school sporting events where you're lucky if there's even a trainer."
The Sports Legacy Group, or SLI, works with the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, and has been a leader in raising public awareness about the dangers of concussions and advocating for safer sports. The NFL has cracked down on flagrant hits in recent years, and is regularly toughening its rules for treating concussions.
The league also substantially cut back the number of offseason contact practices in its most recent labor agreement in 2010.
SLI director Chris Nowinski stated that researchers believe the developing brains of children, particularly those younger than 14, are more vulnerable to long-term damage from head trauma than the adult brain.
"In terms of safety, the NFL is really the model," Nowinski said. "In a world where NFL players are more protected than the teenage players, we have a problem and we need to correct it."
Nowinski said at least 29 states currently allow high school programs to engage in offseason contact practices in spring or summer, including Texas (30 days of contact in spring), Illinois (20 days), and Florida (17 days).
The former players speaking on behalf of SLI included quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, former linebacker Ted Johnson, former offensive lineman Kyle Turley and former linebacker Isaiah Kacyvenski.
The players all said they still love football, but want youth and high school programs to be proactive about making easy, inexpensive decisions to team kids how to practice without pads and drastically reduce young players' exposure to repetitive head hits.
"I love the game of football and I want it fixed," Turley said, who has struggles with vertigo since his pro career and often wears sunglasses indoors to help with the symptoms. "We demand that it be fixed."
"If places like Texas don't want to value kids' lives then they don't love football," Turley said. "Facts and stats speak for selves. You don't need to hear it from me. ... If you don't believe in statistics, you're an imbecile."
Hasselbeck said curbing offseason contact in all levels of football is the "smart thing to do," and compared those who resist such measures to coaches who saw water breaks as a sign of weakness back when his father, Don, played pro ball.
"Now we know this is just foolishness, stupid," he said.