Concerns about concussions trickle down to high school sports

A concussion is defined by the National Library of Medicine as “a minor traumatic brain injury that can lead to headaches, memory loss, drowsiness, etc. that can affect how the brain works.”

These symptoms can, however, last a lifetime.

Several professional sports organizations are beginning to recognize the long-term effects of concussions and are making rule changes aimed at reducing the occurrence and severity of these brain injuries. Not surprisingly, college and even high school sports programs are also paying more attention to the dangers.

A lot of major concussion cases involving professional athletes have made news lately, and the most prominent case involves former NFL running back Tony Dorsett. The hall-of-famer has been diagnosed with signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) due to mild, repetitive brain trauma. Dorsett is among the 300-plus players suing the NFL for the long-lasting effects of the head injuries he sustained while playing.

The NFL has introduced rule changes designed to reduce the risk of head injuries, and the penalty flags have been flying this season as players struggle to alter their tackles to avoid head-to-head contact. But while the number of head injuries has gone down in the NFL, a staggering 38 players have been lost to ACL tears in the knee through Week 11 of the league’s 16-week season, compared to only 32 cases in all of the 2012 season.

Brandon Merriweather, safety for the Washington Redskins, isn’t a fan of the new rules, even if they do reduce the number of concussions. “You’ve got to go low. You have to tear ACLs, end people’s careers,” Merriweather told the Associated Press. After the lawsuit against the NFL from former players, however, League Commissioner Roger Goodell seems bent on changing the game to avoid concussions.

But these changes aren’t just happening in the NFL; they’re trickling down to the high school game as well.

“It’s all been about increased awareness,” said Head Athletic Trainer Robin Lensch, who is in her 16th season with Fairmont sports. “We’re starting to know more about concussions and their long-term effects.”

Studies from the National Academy of Sciences have shown that teens ages 13-17 are especially vulnerable to long-lasting effects from head injuries. “The brain is undergoing rapid development during those teenage years, and it just doesn’t tolerate trauma very well,” said Lensch.

Among the rule changes in high school football, most of them involve helmetless players and head contact. For instance, the NHFS Football Rulebook of 2013 includes the new rule 9-6-4g: “Players continuing to play without a helmet is now illegal participation.” In other words, if a player’s helmet gets knocked off, he can’t finish the play or his team will be penalized for it.

Many fans feel that the rule changes are ruining the game, but Fairmont Head Football Coach Andy Aracri says he’s indifferent to the changes. “Football is still and always will be a physical, hard-hitting game,” said Aracri. “But these kinds of injuries aren’t going to be swept under the rug anymore. I’m sure fans complained when they added leather helmets to the game.”

Looking to the future of their young playing careers, high school athletes have to wonder if concussions now could affect their health later. And all of the attention on head injuries can mess with an athlete’s head in a very different way: Does concern about concussions affect a player’s performance on field?

Sophomore JV football player Chase Puffer has suffered multiple concussions, including one this fall, and he admits he’s a little gun shy. “It really messes with your thinking,” said Puffer. “It makes you afraid to get hit. You want to hold back.”

As fans, most people will never really know what a sports-related concussion feels like or understand the concerns about what it could cause down the road. But one thing seems to be constant: The more research that comes out about concussions, the more the game of football is going to change, whether fans like it or not.