New law mandating head injury education sides with safety
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Kathy Calkins of Mercy Sports Medicine oversees baseline testing of football players last week at Craig High School in Janesville. The tests allow coaches and medical personnel to compare an athlete’s cognitive abilities before and after a possible concussion. Photo by Dan Plutchak.
WALWORTH--“The wussification of America’s males continues.”
That was the first online response to a May 23 USA Today article about concussions and young athletes. And it received 29 “likes.”
However, an increasing majority of people would take offense with that comment, especially the more than 2,100 former National Football League players and more than 3,350 total plaintiffs, including spouses and families, who filed a concussion/head injury lawsuit against the league in June. They have accused the NFL of hiding information that linked football-related head trauma to permanent brain injuries, causing illnesses such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
(Read all of this week's stories from Walworth County Sunday HERE. )
The Wisconsin Legislature passed Act 172 on April 2. The law went into effect May 7 and targets youth ages 11 to 19 who participate in any sports activities. The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association and Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction collaborated to provide guidelines for implementing the law.
That message has been received loud and clear by youth sports organizers across Walworth and Rock counties as they and public school officials prepare for another busy year. And the most important part of the equation is educating coaches, parents and athletes about the new rules and changing philosophy.
Dave Freymiller is in his fourth year directing the Big Foot Wolves, a program that works with 80 to 85 players ages 8 to 13. The organization is affiliated with the Illinois Youth Football League -- the Illinois High School Association and state of Illinois follow virtually the same guidelines as Wisconsin.
Every coach in the IYFL must attend an educational forum with James Eischeid of Mercy Walworth Hospital, who is the athletic trainer for Big Foot and Williams Bay high schools.
“He talks about awareness and treatment factors, and then each parent and player must read, understand and sign the seven-page document about concussions,” said Freymiller, whose son, Nicholas, participates in the league. “We have a meeting with parents the first week of practice, and they have to agree to report all injuries to the coaches.”
Practices started July 23, and all players must participate in 12 such organized sessions before playing in games, where an athletic trainer and an emergency medical technician always are available.
“We learned testing protocols from Mercy to use on the sidelines. First, you need to know your kids, and that way you can tell some things aren’t right from their personalities,” Freymiller said. “You make eye contact with them. You do strength and balance tests. If they fail any of these, you take their helmet away for 15 minutes and they sit down. You test them again and decide whether they can go back in or not.”
Freymiller said that many people have the misconception that most concussions occur during head-to-head collisions.
“Most of them happen from the whiplash or when a player’s head hits the ground, so a lot of times helmets don’t prevent concussions,” he said.
And Mike Murdy said that’s why awareness and education are so vital for the system to work properly. He is a board member and coach with Janesville Youth Football.
“When we heard about the law, we had discussions and were approached by Mercy Health System, and they helped us out,” said Murdy, whose 13-year-old son has been through the program. “We had coaches’ meetings because the first step is training. We have 500 kids in the program, so the biggest burden was getting all of the educational materials to the parents and players and talking to them, and then administratively documenting everything. But we feel good about it because we’ve gone above and beyond.
“This is all doubly important with youth sports because these kids’ brains aren’t fully developed and I don’t believe there’s much scientific evidence about how concussions affect them, especially how repetitive head injuries affect them later on,” Murdy said. “Many of them don’t have the strength in their bodies, especially in the neck and head area, so they’re just like Bobbleheads. We are taking this very seriously. This concussion strategy is going to a new level, and I believe we’re being prudent for doing so.”
Mercy Health System’s Kathy Calkins works out of the Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Center in Janesville and provides athletic training to Craig High School. She has become an increasingly visible and popular health care professional because of the new legislation and emphasis on safety, although she and the local schools have been ahead of the curve when it comes to concussion issues.
“A year ago, I believe 11 states had some kind of concussion law on their books, and today it’s in the mid-30s,” said Calkins, who has been using the ImPACT program for seven years. “Like with anything new or when you change the rules, some will say that we’re taking it to an extreme. It may take a year or two, but it will no longer be a big deal ... it’ll be part of participating.
“The bottom line is protecting young athletes,” Calkins added.
ImPACT, or baseline, testing stands for immediate post-concussion assessment and cognitive testing. It is a 20- to 25-minute computer test that provides a baseline score of an athlete’s cognitive abilities, such as reaction time, working memory and attention span. Athletes who suffer a concussion or similar symptoms retake the test, and if there is a large decrease in the score, they are typically banned from play until their score improves and they’ve been evaluated by and received a written clearance from a health care provider.
“We’ve been running tests on some athletes in football, soccer and hockey for about seven years, and we’re running more and more,” said Calkins of the baseline program, which is not required by the new law or the WIAA.
However, some medical experts say that the tests have a high false negative rate, which means that the test shows an athlete has recovered from a concussion when they’re still experiencing effects from the injury. As a result, they might be allowed to return to play before it’s safe.
For the complete story, see the Aug. 12 print or e-edition of Walworth County Sunday.
At a glance
-- Mercy sports medicine doctor Darin Rutherford will give a free seminar about concussion in athletes at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Mercy Clinic North, 3400 Deerfield Drive, Janesville. Register by calling (608) 756-6100.
For more information, see these athletic association sites:
-- Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association
-- Illinois High School Association www.ihsa.org/Resources/SportsMedicine/ConcussionManagement.aspx