Concussion Confusion: Brain Injuries Raise Questions about Sport’s Future

Pound the Rock.

That is what head football coach Erick Ware tells his players at Bogan High School on Chicago’s South Side. And that is what he told grieving students and faculty at a memorial for senior football player Andre Smith.

“I want you guys to continue to pound the rock when things get tough,” Ware said, adding. “I know dealing with a lot of this pain isn’t easy, but we have to continue to pound the rock. Do this for Andre, because he pounded the rock.”

Smith, 17, died on Oct. 23 of blunt force head injuries after a hard hit during the final play of the final game of the season the day before, according to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office. He became, at the time, the seventh U.S. high school football player to die during the 2015 season, according to the Illinois High School Association.

That number increased to eight, after Luke Schemm, a 17-year-old football player from Kansas, died from a traumatic brain injury Nov. 3. The cause: a shoulder-to-shoulder hit after he scored his third touchdown of the night.

These recent tragedies shed light on the ongoing debate over whether player safety and health should trump football tradition and the sport’s future. Lawsuits are being filed and policy statements released just as memorials and funerals are held across the nation. Some are now questioning whether the characteristically American sport will soon face tough changes.

Numbers represent the ages of players who suffered fatal football-related injuries. Graphic by Bianca Sanchez

Numbers represent the ages of players who suffered fatal football-related injuries. Graphic by Bianca Sanchez

Four days after Smith’s death, on Oct. 27, Cook County Circuit Judge LeRoy K. Martin Jr. dismissed a class-action lawsuit against the IHSA filed by former South Elgin High School football player Alex Pierscionek.

“It is clear to this court that IHSA has acted to protect student athletes in this State, that the measures alleged to be necessary by plaintiff are simply conclusions and not factual allegations capable of being proven at all…” read the Dismissal Order.

Pierscionek, who says he has suffered “significant memory loss and migraines” from a concussion sustained at a football practice in 2012, claimed that the IHSA does not do enough to ensure player’s safety.

The IHSA argued that their non-profit organization, with 800 voluntary member high schools (600 of which offer football), “promotes and fosters” high school athletics’ “inherent good.” The IHSA also claimed new policies will not be financially available for some schools, and potentially lead to the end of high school football programs across the state.

The lawsuit aimed to establish new IHSA concussion protocol including baseline testing in the preseason, implementation of mandatory return to play protocols, trained medical personnel available for all games and practices and medical monitoring.

“Our theory of liability has never been that ‘football is dangerous therefore someone ought to be sued,’” said Pierscionek’s attorney, Joseph Siprut. “It’s not that at all. We understand that football is dangerous, and that is part of what people are getting into. Our case is really about what happens after the first concussion is incurred and the player is taken to the sidelines and off the field.”

Three Days before the Oct. 27 order the IHSA issued a statement about Smith’s passing.

“As anyone who has participated in athletics knows there is a risk of injury any time a player steps on the field of play. Football, in particular, has been under the microscope over the last decade, and organizations at all levels of play, including high school, have been taking aggressive steps to try and reduce injury over time,” the statement read.

NFL

The fall high school football season may have ended but both professional and college football is still ongoing.

Over the last couple days, confusion has surrounded the NFL’s involvement in a National Institutes of Health study aiming to diagnose Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in living patients. ESPN first reported the NFL had backed out of their $30 million grant after being displeased with the study’s objectivity. However, the NFL has denied that claim saying the grant is still available for the NIH, and that it was the NIH who decided to fund the study on their own.

This confusion comes about a month after the criticism and outrage surrounding the handlings of both St. Louis Rams quarterback Case Keenum’s head thump against the turf and Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s helmet-to-helmet collision. The common thread between the two was that the concussion tests were performed after the quarterbacks had been allowed to continue playing. Newton later passed the concussion test, while Keenum did not.

This recent skepticism is paired with the Christmas premiere of the movie “Concussion”. Will Smith’s Golden Globe nominated portrayal of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the man who first diagnosed CTE in former NFL players, has put the concussion chaos into the public eye.

All this is after a federal judge, in April, approved a settlement to resolve a concussion lawsuit between the NFL and thousands of former players. USA Today reported it costing the NFL $900 million.

NCAA

For its part, Sports Illustrated reported that, in 2014, the NCAA tallied an estimated 3,417 concussions since 2009, while Harvard and Boston University researchers found that only one in every 27 head injuries had been reported. Because of this, independent medical observers have sat in the instant replay booth at games this football season.

Siprut, the attorney from the IHSA case, filed a class action suit in September 2014 against the NCAA. This suit, unlike the IHSA filing, was broadened to include all NCAA sports, not just football. After the first suit was rejected in Dec. 2014, Siprut proposed a new settlement in April. It is still pending before the court.

HIGH SCHOOL

Legislation across the country has, in a variety of shapes and forms, been attempting to fix the concussion problem in high schools.

Each of the 15 players represents 10,000 concussions estimated each year. Graphic by Bianca Sanchez

Each of the 15 players represents 10,000 concussions estimated each year. Graphic by Bianca Sanchez

In August Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed Senate Bill 7. The new law requires concussion oversight committees be created in all Illinois schools that participate in interscholastic athletics. The law also requires students who suffer a concussion to receive permission from a doctor or trainer before returning to school and the field

However, with the deadly fall season finished, December has brought a variety of new outrage.

On Dec. 9 the Michigan High School Athletic Association released concussion data collected from their 700 plus high schools. The report, which will be released in full at the end of the school year, found that slightly over 2 percent of their high school athletes suffered a concussion during the fall sports season, reports say. About 80 percent of the possible concussion reports were related to football.

December 17 marked the filing of a class-action lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association for allegedly not properly tracking or testing concussions, educating school officials on how to best respond, and not providing resources for medical care across all high school sports, USA Today reported.

YOUTH

High school, NCAA and NFL players start off somewhere, in a youth league.

A recent study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that the concussion rates for youth players were roughly double for American football. And with “Concussion” movie’s imminent release, many are hoping by parents seeing what future football can hold for their children, they will start a call for reform.

Wyatt, a third grader from Ohio, collapsed after running sprints with his youth football team. He was later transported to the hospital where he died. Though his death was found to be due to an “abnormal left main coronary artery in the heart,” the timing of his death, the same week as Schemm’s, brought equal levels of media coverage and scrutiny in the football safety system.

And days before the Oct.27 IHSA order, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a new policy statement, “Tackling in Youth Football.”

APA POLICY STATEMENT AND ATHLETIC TRAINERS

The policy statement cited several reports and concluded that there is no current evidence that tackling should be banned at the youth level, approximately between the ages five and 12.

“I think the sport has some issues, obviously,” Dr. Greg L. Landry, a head writer of the policy statement, said. “We have to continue to do things to try and make the game safer.”

Landry offered a few suggestions for youth programs including banning spear tackling (leading with the head), having players strengthen their necks and hiring athletic trainers. Many programs do not, however, have the means to hire athletic trainers. And as the IHSA agued, new protocols may lead to the ends of several programs.

“Our statement is about youth football, but gosh if we don’t have athletic trainers in high school that’s a problem, too,” Landry said. “It’s a matter of school systems having the wherewithal to do it and also making that a priority.”

SAFETY PROTOCOL and BUDGET CONCERNS

The increased safety protocols, technological equipment and medical push to hire trainers have the potential to unintentionally divide football, at all levels, into the haves and have-nots. On the other hand, these new innovations also offer the opportunity for a collective improvement in safety across all football levels.

Benjamin McCall, head football coach of Chicago’s Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy and former Purdue University football scholarship recipient, believes that change is possible if parents pitch in.

“You know if they can buy a $150 pair of gym shoes to walk around in then they can probably spend $80 on technology that would help supplement the protocols in place already,” McCall said.

McCall gave credit to corporations for revolutionizing football technology and technique. He also mentioned Heads Up Football, a program developed by USA Football, for encouraging leading with the shoulder rather than the head when going in for the tackle. He also credits helmet corporations for revolutionizing technology.

Graphic by Bianca Sanchez

Graphic by Bianca Sanchez

Riddell, an Illinois-based football gear provider and a BRG Sports brand, in an attempt to help tackle the concussion dilemma, launched the flexibly engineered Riddell SpeedFlex helmet in 2014 and the Riddell Insite Response System in 2013.

The Riddell Insite Response System comes with a five-zone sensor pad placed inside the player’s helmet. The sensor quantifies an impact, analyzing it based on location, duration, and acceleration. If the analyzed impact, or impacts, passes a player-specific threshold an alert listing the player’s name and number is sent from the player unit to the coach’s handheld alert monitor. The system can be installed in both the Riddell Speed and SpeedFlex helmet models.

To install the Riddell Insite Response System, under the current program, costs about $150 per helmet. The Riddell Speedflex helmet sells for almost double the price of the original $169 youth Riddell Speed Classic and $125 more than the $275 varsity equivalent.

Despite the price difference, the new technology has had a warm reception.

“The initial reaction to InSite has been very positive,” Director of Corporate Communications for Riddell and BRG Sports, Erin Griffin, wrote over email. “In 2015, hundreds of programs and thousands of players wore InSite equipped helmets. We expect in the near future every football helmet will be equipped with some type of sensor technology.”

At this point Brooks College Prep does not have the sensor technology, but McCall still has faith in the program and football as a sport.

“I still think that football has a lot of positives kids can gain… Working with people, dedicating themselves, hard work,” McCall said, adding. “A free college education, … educations are not free for Joe Schmoe, they are for Joe Athlete. As long as I think we are doing what we are doing and investing our money in the kid’s safety, I think you can still get parents and kids to buy in.”

MEMORIAL

As the Andre Smith memorial came to a close, Coach Ware, and the other coaches, all dressed in black, stepped to the middle of the stage with the family. Reaching under the wooden lecture stand, Ware grabbed a jersey.

“On behalf of the 2015 William J. Bogan Computer Technical School football program,” Ware said. “As I mentioned to you at the vigil, as long as I am here coaching football at Bogan High School, no one will ever wear the jersey number 2.”

Ware explained how the other Number 2 jersey, not Smith’s, was “confiscated by a former player.” Repressed giggles surfaced from the crowd, even a small one from Smith’s mother. Ware instead offered the family the Number 1 jersey and a Bogan football helmet.

Next to present a gift to the family was the class of 2016. The representative for the class asked all graduating students to stand.

“On behalf of the senior class we present this picture of your son, to you,” he said, handing a picture to Smith’s mother and walking back to the podium to grab the next gift. He pulled another picture out of a multi-color large picture envelope, clearly an untouched school yearbook photo. “We also present to you, your baby in his cap and gown.”

Smith’s mother and stepfather collapsed on the rock.

 

About Bianca Sanchez

Bianca Sanchez is a freshman at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, and lives in Chicago.

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