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Outraged SOMS Parents Claim District Downplays Risks of Football to Students

Some South Orange – Maplewood parents are angry at what they see as an inappropriate attempt by coaches and athletic staff to “recruit” middle school students to the Columbia High School football team, while not fully informing them of the dangers of the sport.

However, the district said the coaches visit South Orange and Maplewood Middle Schools each year to provide information sessions for all high school athletics, not just football. The district also denied that coaches ever downplayed the risks of concussion or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

After SOMSD Athletic Director Larry Busichio visited South Orange Middle School earlier this week to discuss the football program with students, several parents sent a letter to SOMS Principal Lynn Irby and Supt. Dr. John Ramos to express concern that parents were not informed ahead of time about the sessions.

They also alleged that Busichio and his staff told students that football was “not dangerous because they teach ‘Heads Up’ tackling,'” said parent Michael Kasdan, who wrote the letter that was signed by six other parents. Kasdan wrote, “…playing football, even without head-to-head or helmet-to-helmet contact carries with it a great risk of CTE, which can lead to brain damage, mental illness, dementia, and suicide later in life.”

Buschio said in a statement to The Village Green: “At no time did we say football is completely safe. No sport is completely safe, injuries happen all the time. What we did say is that with the new style of teaching tackling, head injuries have been reduced.”

In the letter, Kasdan wrote, “Football is not a contact sport. It is a collision sport. CTE is caused by subsconcussive hits, regardless of whether there is head-to-head contact….We are outraged by both the incomplete information that was presented at the meeting and by the circumvention of parental guidance.”

He and the other parents requested to meet with administration and asked the district to ensure parents and students are “honestly informed of the risks of football, including CTE, before the end of this school year.”

(See the full text of the letter below.)

Supt. Dr. John Ramos responded to Kasdan and said “We will pay attention to this matter and follow-up accordingly.”

District spokeswoman Suzanne Turner said coaches and staff use several methods to communicate information about sports programs to students, including talking to students directly (some coaches are also teachers); attended Little League events; and holding information nights at CHS for incoming freshmen.

“The football coaching staff has gone to the two middle schools the past two years to give out information regarding start dates, weight room, physicals, etc.,” said Turner. Students may volunteer to attend the sessions, which are open to both boys and girls.

Busichio said that before a student can participate in a sport, they must complete an athletic physical packet which contains a two-page form explaining the dangers of concussion in all sports, not just football. The form also gives parents procedures to follow if they believe their child is suffering from a concussion. Their child cannot participate in high school athletics without signing off on that form.

“In May, we held an informational session about athletics for incoming 9th grade families,” Busichio said  “We had members of the Morahan Health Center at St. Barnabas come down to discuss concussions and cardiac issues in athletics. We provide baseline tests for all athletes twice during their high school careers (usually freshman and junior years unless they transfer in). Also, all of our coaches are certified in First Aid & AED usage, as well as concussion awareness and heat illness prevention.”

According to Kasdan, the district is trying to coordinate a meeting between coaches and parents.

Here is the full text of the letter:

Dear Principal Irby, Superintendent Ramos, and Philip Stern, Esq.:

Earlier this week, we learned that the Columbia High School football team and coaching staff visited SOMS to “recruit” our sons for the football team. They were the only sports team to do so during the school day, and they did so without informing parents ahead of time. We also learned that at the meeting they told our sons that football was “not dangerous because they teach ‘Heads Up’ tackling.” Many of our sons came home ready to play, and are now angry at parents who do not want them to.

As you know, these past years have revealed – in detail not previously known – that playing football, even without head-to-head or helmet-to-helmet contact carries with it a great risk of CTE, which can lead to brain damage, mental illness, dementia, and suicide later in life. The unfortunate suicides of NFL legends Mike Webster, Dave Duerson, and Junior Seau, among others, has raised the profile and specter of whether football is safe and can be made safe. The NFL itself is in the process of settling a massive class action litigation related to head injuries. The book League of Denial and movie Concussion have helped to bring these concerns to the greater public.

Significantly, these risks are not only borne by the relative small number of players who play professionally in the NFL, but by the millions of children who play Pop Warner, High School Football, and College Football. Our children. According to the Concussion Legacy Institute, 7 of 27 children’s brains that have been tested, who only played football through high school, have revealed CTE. Among the deceased are teenagers, Eric Pelly, Joseph Chernach, Paul Bright, Mike Jenkins, and Nathan Stiles.

Seeking to stave off this controversy, the NFL instituted and funded its ‘Heads Up’ football program as a national initiative to help make the game “better and safer.” While the program emphasizes proper equipment fitting, concussion awareness and ‘heads up’ tackling, critics have noted that “the program is woefully deficient in its understanding of two important elements of youth football, including that “With football, chaos is at hand in virtually every play. Tackling is a car wreck; it’s impossible to choreograph heads-up collisions involving children — never mind college or NFL players — running full speed at each other.” See, e.g., [this article].

Football is not a contact sport. It is a collision sport. CTE is caused by subsconcussive hits, regardless of whether there is head-to-head contact. And there is no evidence whatsoever that ‘Heads Up’ tackling techniques reduce the risk of CTE.

During the school day, our children are placed in your care. We are outraged by both the incomplete information that was presented at the meeting and by the circumvention of parental guidance.

We have been in touch with Chris Nowinski, of the Concussion Legacy Institute, as well as child-athlete advocate, Kimberly Archie regarding this issue. Both are as appalled as we are.

We acknowledge that Dana Miller received an email in response to her Let’s Talk inquiry today offering a telephone conversation with Coach Busichio to discuss this and to “address any concern.” Thank you for that response. We will speak to the coach.

However this goes beyond one parent speaking to a coach. We need the process to be corrected. We are asking that the school remedy this situation by – at the very least – making sure both parents and students are honestly informed of the risks of football, including CTE, before the end of this school year. There is a very short window of opportunity to make this right.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Regards,

Dana Miller
Mike Kasdan
Ken Feinleib
Marcie Felsenfeld
Deidra McLaughlin
Elissa Malespina
Scott McCulley

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