Our Views: Concussion risks in youth sports merit caution

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Gazette editorial board
August 21, 2015

The Gazette's series Sunday and Monday on concussions in youth sports leaves three key takeaways.

First, concussion fears aren't causing many athletes to quit local high school sports.

Second and most surprising, a UW-Madison study found football helmets with new designs aren't safer.

Third and most important, coaches and trainers are following new protocols to reduce repetitive injuries that could lead to long-term problems.

It helps that the state passed a law in 2012 requiring programs to educate coaches, players and parents about risks of concussions. It also requires coaches to immediately remove a player who shows signs of a concussion and, if one is confirmed, that the player get written clearance from a medical professional before returning.

The state was heads-up in passing that law even before three high-profile developments. In 2014, President Obama said if he had a son, he wouldn't let him play pro football. In March, former UW-Madison star Chris Borland retired from the NFL after a stellar rookie season rather than risk his long-term health. In April, the NFL agreed to pay each of more than 5,000 retired players up to $5 million in a concussion lawsuit settlement.

Let's take our key points one at a time.

First, local high schools opened football seasons Friday night, and teams are seeing little drop-off in participation. Yes, the Janesville Youth Football League has seen numbers dip, but it's hard to know how much of that was due to rising interest in soccer and the exodus of families and reduced incomes after General Motors and related industries closed in 2008.

Granted, declining numbers in youth sports might be gradual and show up over longer time periods.

It was remarkable, though, that The Gazette got no responses after using print and social media to seek parents concerned about letting their kids play high school football.

Second, UW-Madison studied more than 2,000 players for a year or two at 34 Wisconsin high schools and found about 9 percent suffered concussions. Study co-author Tim McGuine says researchers found no difference in concussion rates based on helmet brand, age or reconditioning. McGuine says newer helmets designed to reduce risks can lead to riskier behavior by players that negates their value. Helmet fit, he says, is most critical and an issue coaches should keep in mind.

The researchers also found that concussion risks are seven times greater during games than practices. Another key finding leads to our third point: A player who suffered a concussion in the past 12 months is almost twice as likely to have a second one.

Monday's story on former Orfordville Parkview basketball star Stephanie Aasen offers a cautionary tale and shows football and soccer aren't the only sports where players risk concussions. Aasen suffered her first concussion on the basketball court as a Parkview senior and a second in 2012 during her sophomore year at Clark University in Dubuque, Iowa. Her third came a week later when a larger player knocked her down while rebounding and Aasen hit her head on the ground.

Aasen suffered debilitating problems that left her in a dark, quiet room for weeks. She had short-term memory loss, bouts of depression and struggled to focus in school and to eat and sleep normally. She endured headaches for more than a year and couldn't play again until her senior year. Even today, she attributes some memory and sleep problems to her concussions.

That's why it's important that coaches and trainers follow the law and protocols. One valuable step is cognitive testing called ImPACT, which provides baselines of memory and reaction time. A player suffering a concussion then can be retested. Not all schools and programs use it, but it would be wise for all to do so.

Parents and athletes must be open and honest about concussions, as well. A coach can't always recognize when a player suffers a blow to the head, and symptoms might not show up for a day or two.

The long-term health of every young athlete is far more important than playing in that next game.


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