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Concussions take center stage in prep sports

Head injuries, if not curbed, could spell end to football
By: Justin A. Lawson Journal Sports Writer
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Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series on concussions in high school sports. The lexicon of football has changed from a player getting his bell rung or having a dinger to concussion or traumatic brain injury. If those words sound somewhat scary and like strong medical terminology, it’s because they are. Concussions have become the focus of high school football in particular because of the attention they have received at the professional level. Former NFL players seem to find their way into the headlines weekly with another lawsuit or appearance in front of congress to testify on the lasting effects of concussions. On the high school level, schools have gone through nearly all available avenues to ensure the safety of the players from strengthening the rules of how long helmets may be used, to taking athletes off the field if they show any symptoms and to using the most technologically-advanced concussion management techniques available. Some have worked and others haven’t but at this point schools are throwing everything they have at concussions to protect players and avoid the lawsuits seen in the upper levels. “It’s pretty simple. The health and safety of our student-athletes is the most important thing,” said Pete Saco, commissioner of the California Interscholastic Federation Sac-Joaquin Section. “We hand out a lot of banners and a lot of championships and runner-up plaques but in the big picture and scheme of things that’s secondary. The health and safety of our student-athletes is the most important thing.” Concussion symptoms Most people have seen the signs of obvious concussions: a player lying on the ground passed out, not knowing where they are or what happened. That’s just one end of the spectrum. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, other symptoms include dizziness, nausea, irritability and change in sleeping patterns. The CDC estimates that more than 1.6 million sports and recreation-related concussions occur in the United States each year. Additionally, 85 percent of concussions go unreported, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. “We think that the primary reason for not reporting is simply that the athlete doesn’t want to be removed from play, they want to finish the game, they’re tough, they can tough it out,” said Catherine Broomand, the director of the Youth Sports Concussion Program at Kaiser Permanente. “But research has shown that the primary reason that athletes don’t report their concussion symptoms is because they don’t think that their symptoms are severe enough.” Football accounts for more than 30 percent of all concussions in athletes ages 15-19. Soccer is the highest occurrence in girls’ sports at 16 percent of all injuries, according to the CDC. Preventative measures Not too long ago, there wasn’t much thought put into helmet purchases. Everyone wore basically the same helmet with the same technology from the 1980s. But since concussions have become such a hot-button topic helmet technology has changed and high schools have shortened the time helmets are allowed to be used. “We send our helmets and our shoulder pads after every season in to get reconditioned and each helmet has a warranty,” Placer High football coach Joey Montoya said. ”And now, with the stricter guidelines, the warranties are a lot less time and so we’re at the point where we basically replace anywhere from 15-30 helmets a year that have lost their warranty or don’t pass the code.” Helmets are now only used for five years rather than 10 years as they used to be several years ago. Additionally many players buy their own helmets, opting for the top-of-the-line products like the Riddell Revolution. But even the high-priced helmets can’t eliminate concussions. “The most ironic thing is that every kid that we had have a concussion this last season all had the top notch helmet, which to me I thought I was kind of ironic,” Montoya said. The use of baseline tests, such as ImPACT, has been introduced at the high school level as a concussion management tool. Athletes take the initial computer-based test before the season begins and retake it if they have any concussion symptoms. The series of questions is turned into data that helps determine if a player is ready to return to play. Like helmets, the tests also have their faults. A recent study placed 118 healthy student volunteers in the ImPACT test. The group then returned to take the test two more times over a 95-day period. More than one-third of the participants failed the test despite being concussion free. “I think some of the criticism from ImPACT comes from people saying that you can’t use it to manage a concussion and that’s true,” Broomand said. ”You can’t use it by itself to manage a concussion, it’s part of your toolbox. As long as you understand that it’s one piece of concussion management then ImPACT is a great tool.” Concussions and the future ESPN.com recently painted a bleak picture in an article on concussions. The story pointed to the string of lawsuits the NFL has faced recently from former players, like the family of Pittsburgh Steeler great Mike Webster, who died in 2002 at the age of 50. Webster was diagnosed with brain damage in 1998 and his family sued the NFL after his death for loss of benefits. A court awarded the family more than $1.5 million in damages. High schools have a hard enough time funding sports in this economic climate so if lawsuits began to roll downhill, it may spell the end of football as we know it. “I think that’s just an eye-opener,” Del Oro athletic director Justin Cutts said. ”If you get enough lawsuits schools look at it and say you can’t do this anymore. And they would, you’d have to quit.” Cutts doesn’t want it to get that far. Neither does Saco, who was recently on hand to announce the new Sacramento Valley Concussion Care Consortium, which is part of Wells Fargo’s Play it Safe Program. The program insures athletes for about $5 each to ensure that they receive baseline testing and visits to neurosurgeons, if necessary. “Whether we want to agree or not, these are the leaders of our country in the next 30 or 40 years and we want to make sure that they’re ready to lead our country down the right path,” Saco said.