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An examination of concussions in SCV football

Posted: December 5, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: December 5, 2013 2:00 a.m.

Even the most basic questions were difficult to comprehend.

“What sport are you playing?” an athletic trainer asked Valencia High junior football player Ty’ree White.

“I couldn’t really remember what I was doing or where I was at,” White said.

Minutes earlier, he came off the field after taking a vicious hit to the back of his head during a recent CIF playoff football game against Arroyo Grande.

Later that night at a hospital, White was told he had a minor concussion.

He was fortunate. In his case, his injury was only serious enough to keep him out a week.

But every year, there are thousands of Ty’ree Whites across the nation, and some suffer head injuries far more severe.

They’re the types of injuries that are changing the way sports are being played.

No game is getting more attention than football, America’s most popular sport, and a football-adoring community like the Santa Clarita Valley isn’t immune to it.

A study released Oct. 30 by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies revealed that high school football players nationwide suffer brain injuries at a much higher rate than do college players.

It said high school students suffer concussions at a rate of 11.2 per 10,000 athletic exposures. In this case, an “exposure” was defined as a practice or game.

The study looked at all sports at the high school level and concluded that football is by far the most likely to cause concussions.

“In our sport in particular, it’s a violent sport. It’s a collision sport and inevitably we’re going to have the injuries that we see,” said Saugus High head football coach Jason Bornn. ”We’re going to do the best of our ability to prevent these types of injuries.”

Bornn and other football coaches in the community acknowledge the seriousness of the issue.

But what exactly is being done locally and at the state level to keep kids safe on Friday nights?

Can enough be done, or should we just accept it as the violent sport that it is?

It’s an ongoing national debate at the highest levels of football, and one that hits home in the SCV.

Dangers of concussions

The October study on high school players supplements a lot of the research that’s already been done.
Perhaps more alarming than the number of concussions seen in football is what researchers are discovering these injuries can lead to down the road.

A story published on last week said six high school players across the country have died due to football-related injuries this year alone, with an autopsy pending on a possible seventh.

Most of those deaths were reportedly due to injuries of the head, neck or spine. The Institute of Medicine’s study only focused on head injuries.

In the past, some of these tragedies prompted states around the nation to take preventive action.
California and the SCV have been ahead of the curve on those types of policies.

What’s being done?

California was the third state in the U.S. whose high school sports’ governing body enacted a concussion protocol for all sports, doing so in 2010.

The state’s bylaw, according to the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF), says that an athlete showing any symptoms of a concussion must be removed from the game or practice for the rest of that day. That athlete cannot return until a doctor clears him/her.

There are now 49 states plus Washington D.C. with similar bylaws (Mississippi is the lone holdout).

The CIF, like college and professional football, also has multiple rules in place to prevent dangerous helmet-to-helmet hits and to discourage players from leading with their heads.

“It is an issue and the powers to be decide whatever direction it goes in the future in terms of equipment and all the things you try to do to prevent it,” said Valencia High head football coach Larry Muir.

The experts in the study say dealing with concussions is less about equipment and more about treating them correctly afterward and giving athletes proper rest time.

In May, the CIF will vote on a rule to limit sports’ practice times to 18 hours of activity during the week, including the time spent during games.

CIF executive director Roger Blake said the bylaw is likely to pass.

“The practice time is just a small part of the big picture of high school sports,” Blake said. “I think we need to get it back in perspective. I think that the next step on the concussion end is going to be how much actual physical hitting contact time is appropriate.”

Locally, the William S. Hart Union High School District is a step ahead of the CIF.

Though there are no current restrictions on practice time at the state level, the Hart district allows its sports teams just 10 hours maximum in the offseason and the district monitors the time closely during the season.

Limitations in practice time are due to a number of factors, with athlete safety among them, according to Greg Lee, district director of human resources and equity services.

“There’s a greater awareness for it just because kids are bigger and faster and the risk of the injury is more pronounced than when we played,” Lee said.

The district has also long had a rule in place that requires a physician to be on hand for every football game.

Head coaches are required to have CPR training and, for first time this year, each coach must complete an online concussion training course every two years to help learn the signs and symptoms.

“I think it has to be major concern,” said Canyon High football head coach Rich Gutierrez of concussions. “I think it’s also something you have to be aware of. You have to take precautions, stay on point when it comes to the latest equipment and make sure the boys are always safe.”

The issues ahead

Of the four high school coaches interviewed, two have kids, and both said they would be OK with their kids playing football. Jason Bornn at Saugus said he has a 10 and 12-year-old playing at the youth level, though he admitted he had to mull it over before letting them join.

“Have I thought about my kids playing? Absolutely,” Bornn said. “But at the end of the day, I think that the safety equipment of the game and the opportunity that football presents – quite frankly, the things they learn from playing football are more than what they would lose from not playing football.”

As far as what the exact risks of concussions are, no one can say for sure.

The study noted that its calculated concussion rates are likely higher in reality, but very few states or school districts keep data on high school injuries. Neither the Hart District nor the CIF keep track of concussions.

Hart High football head coach Mike Herrington said he sees an average of three or four concussions per year on his team, “but there could be ones that we don’t even notice because the player doesn’t say anything.”

The new training teaches coaches to diagnose in more sophisticated ways than “how many fingers am I holding up?”

Greg Lee said part of the challenge is trying to change the culture of the game from the idea that athletes need to be tough and play through any pain.

“(It’s about) not having coaches telling kids to suck it up,” Lee said. “I think it’s being more visual and all the coaches being more cognizant of a kid’s behavior.”

But a culture change takes time with a sport as popular as football.

It is a dangerous sport, but there’s still not enough data out to tell us just how dangerous it is. What we do know is the sport isn’t going anywhere as long as the stands continue to fill up on Friday nights.

“I think football has become part of the fabric of sports society,” Muir said.


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