Frank Bruni

Probably no one tracks concussions among young athletes in the United States more closely than Dawn Comstock, and in many ways, she’s encouraged by what she sees.

It’s now less common for a player whose head has collided violently with a ball, a wall, the ground or another player to return to competition right away. It’s now more common for him or her to get medical attention.

But Comstock, an epidemiologist at the Colorado School of Public Health, is frustrated by stubborn gaps between truly safe behavior and the status quo. She told me that more than half of the high schools with football teams don’t have a full-time athletic trainer, so there’s no immediately available person with the specific mission of preventing and treating injuries.

There are also sports other than football — and trauma other than concussions — that don’t attract nearly the vigilance they should, she added. Above all, there’s an enduringly strange, dangerous relationship between parents and sports, specifically between parents and coaches.

“What I would love to see is parents taking as much time to investigate their child’s coach, the league that they’re putting their child into and the officials officiating the game as they do a day care center when their child is young,” she told me. “They don’t have trouble challenging a teacher, even a pediatrician. But somehow they have trouble challenging a sports league.”

This coming week, the major Hollywood movie “Concussion” opens. It stars Will Smith as a scientist who sounded the alarm about the long-term impact of repetitive head injuries in professional football.

And it reflects a storm of attention over the last decade to the serious, sometimes fatal damage done to the vulnerable brains of football players of all ages — and of soccer players, too. We’ve learned, for example, that soccer carries a greater risk of concussion for girls than it does for boys.

But the talk of a “concussion crisis” and the pronounced concern about football and soccer are blinding us somewhat to a larger picture, a broader lesson: Our veneration of sports, our adulation of athletes and our ethos of toughing it out put kids needlessly at risk of all sorts of preventable injuries in all kinds of improvable sports.

“I worry that we’ve been so focused on football that parents are pushing their kids out of that and into something else and not realizing that there are dangers there, too,” said Kevin Guskiewicz, one of the directors of the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We need to improve safety in all the sports that children play.”

Guskiewicz drew my attention to a study published just a few months ago in The American Journal of Sports Medicine that determined that among college athletes, concussions were most likely in wrestling, followed by men’s ice hockey and then women’s ice hockey. And women’s soccer and women’s basketball, in that order, were right behind football in terms of the danger of concussion.

Comstock, who supervises an ongoing national inventory of athletic injuries among high school students, said: “I have 22 sports in my surveillance system, and concussions have been reported in all but one of them. That includes swimming.” A distracted kid will swim head-on into the wall or into someone coming from the other direction. The sport without concussions, she said, was tennis.

But head injuries are just one peril, and not necessarily the chief one, even in football. There are many more deaths among football players of all ages from indirect trauma, including heatstroke and cardiac arrest, than from such direct trauma as head and spinal-cord injuries.

Douglas Casa, the chief executive officer of the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut, said that from 2000 through 2009, which was the last full decade studied, such indirect-trauma deaths outnumbered direct-trauma deaths by 108 to 41.

“Anytime you hear about a kid dying from heatstroke in high-school football, it was 100 percent preventable,” he added. And he said that there are an even greater number of preventable cases of severe heatstroke that leads not to death but to prolonged or permanent health complications.

— Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.

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