Alarming information about football head injuries has some parents thinking twice about allowing their children to suit up despite better equipment and training.
A report released in late 2013 and funded by the NFL found football has the highest rates of concussions in high school sports and that high school players are twice as likely to suffer brain injuries as are college players.
The 300-page report is titled, “Sports-Related Concussions in Youth: Improving the Science, Changing the Culture.”
It rates football at the top of the list with 11.2 concussions per 10,000 “athletic exposures.” Second is Lacrosse, with 6.9 (boys) and 5.2 (girls).
The report said there were 250,000 concussions reported to emergency rooms in 2009 for people under age 19. In 2001, there were 150,000.
But a 16-year-old junior at Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, who has suffered multiple concussions, is one of the large number of players who maintain that the risks are overblown
Justin Paniagua has suffered three concussions in his football career. He said he, along with three other teammates, received a concussion during the 2013 football season. However, Paniagua said he never thinks twice about the potential risks in the future from concussions.
“There is always a chance of long-term effects happening to me, but the chances are slim and not much worse than other sports,” he said. “I believe the health risks are outweighed by the benefits — socially, mentally and physically.”
Still, schools are cognizant of the potential risks, and many take precautions. At Salpointe Catholic High School in Tucson, players are given baseline brain scans before the start of the season. Increasingly, schools around the country require the same, and medical services such as Clearedtoplay.org are promoting such tests.
According to researchers at Boston University, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic sub-concussive hits to the head. CTE results in a progressive decline of memory and cognition, and may include effects such as depression, suicidal behavior, poor impulse control, aggressiveness, Parkinsonism, and, eventually dementia, according to those researchers. Sports Illustrated recently ran a special report on the issue.
Fewer on the field
Michael Sarabia, a freshman football coach at Salpointe Catholic High, thinks concussions will have a negative effect on high school football.
“I’ve been surrounded by football for a long time and I’m comfortable with it, whereas someone who has never played before may hear about the concussion risks and choose not to try out,” he said. “Parents may not let their kids ever try out for football because they’re scared of the dangers.”
“Five years ago, 75-80 freshman would come out for the team. Over the past couple of years, our numbers have been declining with lots of parents saying ‘my kid will never play football.’”
Richard Sanchez, the athletic director of the Sunnyside Unified School District in Tucson, disagrees. Sanchez said he hasn’t seen any fallout from the high schools in the district.
“Obviously there are problems with concussions,” he said. “But I haven’t heard of any parents pulling their kids out because of that.
Sarabia said Salpointe takes concussions very seriously. Players take brain tests at the beginning of every season, so if they get hit hard in the head, players are re-tested.
“We do a baseline test of you,” he said. “It’s a brain test on the computer. Any time you get your bell rung now, we take you out and ask you certain questions. If students show even a slight sign of a concussion after the initial test, they will be taken to the trainer for further analysis." Helmet-to-helmet contact isn’t the only thing that leads to concussions, however. Sarabia said most concussions come from the whiplash a player gets from hitting the ground. “Think about Tucson, Arizona — our grass is often like a concrete floor. If you get tackled and your head goes back, even if the tackle isn’t bad you can get a concussion because the ground is so hard."
Concerns about concussions taking away players from programs are heard nationally, of course.
Ryan Haines, 24, who coaches wide receivers and defensive backs at Oak Park High School in California, also foresees trouble getting kids to play high school football in the future due to concerns about concussions.
“It’s going to take a big hit,” he said. “The game is getting too violent and kids are getting bigger, faster and stronger with all the training. It will affect the number of athletes who play.”
Haines said their team lost one player due to brain issues from hitting too much.
Sarabia, who has had multiple conversations with parents who are on the fence about letting their child play, gives them advice.
“I would just say to them it’s a family decision,” he said. “We are going to try to take the best care we can of the kid when he’s out there. But, if their concerns are outweighing the camaraderie that they get on the field, then it’s their decision.”