But What About the Millions of Kids Playing High School and Youth Football?

By Ken Reed

The fact that Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was allowed to return to a game against the Buffalo Bills after clearly suffering a concussion is terrible. The fact he was allowed to play four days later in a Thursday night game against the Cincinnati Bengals, in which he sustained a second concussion, is worse.

And it could’ve been tragic.

People that suffer a second concussion shortly after a first one are at risk for Second Impact Syndrome (SIS), which can have devastating consequences, including death.

I regularly criticize the NFL and NCAA about their lax approach to brain injuries. I want all college and pro football players and coaches to be fully educated about the dangers to the brain that tackle football represents, as well as how to lessen chances of brain injuries and how to quickly identify them when they do occur. But my biggest concern is the millions of kids who play tackle football at the youth and high school levels, many of them without a doctor or trainer on the sidelines during games and/or practices.

Unlike NFL players, our children are playing football while their brains are still developing, increasing the risk of serious brain injuries. These kids are allowed on football fields by the parents, guardians and coaches in their lives before they reach the age of legal consent, and before they are capable of fully understanding the short and long-term risks football represents to their brains.

According to the Brain Injury Research Institute, in any given season, 20 percent of high school players sustain brain injuries. Additionally, over 40.5 percent of high school athletes who have suffered concussions return to action prematurely, which can lead to death from the forementioned Second Impact Syndrome, a condition in which the brain swells, shutting down the brain stem and resulting in respiratory failure.

It’s important to be aware that it’s not just concussions we’re concerned about today. Purdue researchers compared changes in the brains of high school football players who had suffered concussions with the brains of football players who were concussion-free and found brain tissue damage in both. That means some brain injuries are occurring without players, coaches or parents even being aware of it.

According to research published in the Journal of Athletic Training regarding sport-related concussions, 55% of high school athletes said they didn’t or wouldn’t report a concussion. Reasons for not reporting the concussion symptoms included: not wanting to lose playing time, not thinking the injury was serious enough to require medical attention, and not wanting to let the team down.

Another disturbing finding: Only 37% of U.S. high schools employ a full-time athletic trainer. This is important because schools with full-time trainers do a better job of identifying concussed athletes than schools without full-time trainers. Also, athletes at schools without full-time athletic trainers return to play sooner than athletes with full-time trainers. Returning to play too soon after a concussion is dangerous because an athlete is more vulnerable to a follow-up concussion. Also of note, athletes at schools with athletic trainers correctly identified the signs and symptoms of concussions at a higher rate than athletes at schools without full-time trainers.

If schools are going to spend the money to fund football and other sports, they also need to find the money to fund a full-time athletic trainer who is nearby for practices and games, and ideally a doctor on the sideline for games.

Football, at every level, is an exciting game. From a fan perspective, it’s easily America’s favorite sport. In some parts of the country it borders on religion. As such, it’s highly unlikely that football in America will ever go away completely. But if we care about the players’ health, especially the health of young football players who haven’t reached adulthood, we will become a lot more vigilant in finding ways to lessen the risk of traumatic brain injuries, and more effectively treating them when they do occur. Education efforts with all football stakeholders must dramatically improve. Everyone associated with football must be able to quickly identify brain injuries and fully understand the seriousness of these injuries.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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