As we rush into the heady excitement of a new year of prep sports, alarm bells clang so numerous and so loud that one must be forgiven for wondering whether all the cheers and lights and sweat and pride and tears are worth it.
They are, of course. Athletics, especially high school athletics, provide so many fundamental lessons about persistence, teamwork, discipline, exercise and countless other life experiences, including dealing with disappointment, that they rightly deserve their place as an integral component of a sound and well-rounded education.
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But the warning signs are there to be heeded.
The most immediate to the fall 2013 sports season is last week's announcement that the National Football League would pay at least $765 million to compensate and treat thousands of players who have suffered or developed brain disorders. A welcome commitment to the affected players and their families, the settlement offers a decidedly unsettling picture of the risks of a heavy-contact sport.
But such risks are not limited to football. Whether the activity is soccer, volleyball, water polo, cross country, tennis or nearly any other physically competitive sport, the potential for serious injury is always present. The key, as the NFL agreement acknowledges and emphasizes, is in awareness, preparation and training.
That theme was echoed in an announcement by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin last week of proposed federal legislation that would require states to establish and promote safety guidelines regarding concussions and would forbid students who may suffer a head injury from playing until they've been cleared by a physician.
It's too soon to express a firm position on Durbin's specific legislation, but it unquestionably starts an important conversation.
"As we learn about the long-term effects of some of these injuries, it's become clear that we have to do more to confront the risk of sports injuries and to make sure students who are going to suffer these injuries have the very best care and the very best response," Durbin said in announcing his bill at Chicago's Lane Tech High School.
Illinois has a respectable record among states in that kind of thinking, evidenced among other things by enactment this year of legislation requiring schools to carry insurance to help young athletes in the event of a catastrophic accident.
That bill, of course, aims to provide support if things go horribly wrong. Our primary efforts must be to ensure that everything possible is done to keep that from happening. So, the NFL settlement and the new federal legislation offer a timely opportunity to initiate conversations -- among policymakers, in schools and at home -- that focus on precaution and safety.
The autumn athletic season is an idyllic time for athletes, parents and communities, and the lessons of sports play an inestimable role in the growth and development of individual students. We shouldn't let the risks overshadow that value, but keeping them always in mind, learning to minimize them and preparing properly will help us ensure that they don't.