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Are Youth Football Programs Doing Enough To Prevent Concussions?

LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) — Football season is in full swing,  and with it, comes questions and concerns for parents across Southern California.

Many think of helmets are enough for safety, but is the game too rough to play?

KCAL 9's Randy Paige reports experts say parents need to do their homework to protect these young minds.

Ten-year-old David Sumner died from a severe brain injury after colliding with another player at football practice in Simi Valley in 2009.  That same year a high school player was severely brain damaged in Pomona. A year later CBSLA caught up with him  and the damage from his concussion was quite evident.

Parents need to answer two important questions, first, do I want my kids to play football? If the answer is yes, what can I do to make sure they are as safe as possibly?

When kids are really young, there are a lot of differences about their brains that makes them more fragile.

UCLA Professor of Pediatric Neurology Dr. Christopher Giza says parents have a lot to consider when deciding whether or not their kids should play football, particularly when they're in elementary school.

"Skull thickness is less, neck strength is less, energy metabolism is generally higher, the wires in the brain have insulation on them called milen," Giza said. "And the younger your brain is, the less insulation you have, that insulation is a factor in protecting you from injuries, so the less insulation, the younger, the more vulnerable you are."

And, he says, young kids often don't know how explain how they're feeling when they have a concussion, so it's important to have trained adult eyes watching over them.

"What kind of medical supervision do they have? Do they have athletic trainers available? Probably not, most youth sports don't. What kind of training do the coaches or athletic staff get?"

Then there's the issue of helmets.  As it stands now, there are no specific standards for youth football helmets.  Instead there is a more general standard that applies to head injuries for all ages.

Ken Saczalski is a mechanical engineer who has been testing football helmets for nearly three decades.

"There are some youth helmets that are absolutely terrible, very terrible," Saczalski said.

Saczalski conducts impact tests using test dummies which measure how well the helmets cushion the impact.

He began his work in 1973, investigating the death of Jason Beauchamp, a high school sophomore who died from a massive concussion he received during a football game in Austin, Texas. He's been testing helmets ever since.

He says some helmets perform much better than others but there's no way for parents to know because there is no independent standard to measure them by.

"This is crisis situation in my mind. You need the research to drive the standard."

Dr. Giza says, while football can offer benefits, including healthy hearts and strong bodies, parents who decide to let their kids play football need to do some homework:  What kind of shape is the equipment in?  Are the helmets in good condition and do they fit properly?  Do they have athletic trainers available? What kind of training do the coaches have?

His most important message for the parents of kids who are playing football? When in doubt, sit it out.

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