High School Football Injuries Raise Concerns

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Dr. Gerard A. Gioia, Ph.D., Chief of the Division of Pediatric Neuropsychology and Director of the Safe Concussion Outcome, Recovery & Education (SCORE) Program at Children’s National Medical Center in Rockville, MD, testifies at a hearing on the Impact of Concussions on High School Athletes.(Photo: House Com mittee on Education and the Workforce (Flickr))
Dr. Gerard A. Gioia, Ph.D., Chief of the Division of Pediatric Neuropsychology and Director of the Safe Concussion Outcome, Recovery & Education (SCORE) Program at Children’s National Medical Center in Rockville, MD, testifies at a hearing on the Impact of Concussions on High School Athletes.(Photo: House Com mittee on Education and the Workforce (Flickr))

Over the past few years, lawsuits, a new collective bargaining agreement, and Congressional hearings have led the National Football League to change how it handles concussions and head injuries. League rules now require teams remove a player suspected of having a concussion.

About 30 states have similar rules and testing for high school football teams, including Ohio. But they can be hard to enforce.

“Only 40 percent of high schools have certified athletic trainers on staff,” says Fred Mueller, director of the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research. He also wrote the safety portion of the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s football manual.

Mueller says at least 55 high school and college football players have died from brain injuries sustained on the field since 1995. Mueller says many deaths have been traced back to what’s called Second Impact Syndrome, when a brain still recovering from an impact is injured again when a player should be sidelined.

“As a parent, I would make sure that I know what the school is doing, how the coach is teaching, what his emergency plans are, and what he does for safety. A lot of parents just send their kids off to school and don’t do anything. So as a parent, I would want to know what’s going on in my sons football program,” Mueller says.

Most central Ohio football programs have already started practice for the upcoming season. That includes the defending Division III state champion Bishop Watterson Eagles.

Head coach Dan Bjelac says his schools employs a full-time trainer and does it’s best to diagnose head injuries, especially concussions.

“We do a ground-based test. A lot of people have done that, so if there is a problem you can see where they’re at mentally, if there’s been a problem with a potential concussion. Our trainer goes from there,” Bjelac says.

Bjelac says Bishop Watterson and most other schools are also moving toward concussion-reducing helmets that offer better padding.

While high schools have followed professional football’s lead on preventing and managing head injuries, schools largely haven’t adopted another part of the recent NFL labor deal: abolishing “two-a-days,” or two practices a day during summer conditioning. It’s a bigger issue in southern states like Georgia, where two high school football players recently died from heat stroke. Bishop Watterson coach Dan Bjelac says doubling up on practices in the summer is important to get his team ready for the fall, but Fred Mueller from the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research advises against it.

“I don’t think you need two-a-days,” Mueller says. Even at lots of colleges now, if you have a two-a-day today, you can’t have one tomorrow. You have to have one practice tomorrow, and you can’t have a two-a-day until Thursday. I think that’s a good rule,” Mueller says.

Still, adding rules like concussion testing and shorter practices can only go so far in a game based on hard hitting. An increasingly-popular alternative is flag football, which involves pulling a flag from a player’s waist instead of tackling.

Joey Mueller runs several flag football leagues around Ohio. He says injuries are not a problem.

“Maybe out of the 2,400 kids that we had in the past spring, I think one kid got hit in the head with a football and busted his lip a little bit,” Joey Mueller says.

Mueller says participation in his leagues and others around the country has ballooned in recent years. But that still pails in comparison to traditional football. The National Federation of High School Associations says about 1.2 million high schoolers will suit up for their football team this year.

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