Just a few short weeks from now, football players for high schools across the Mahoning Valley will charge the field for the start of another exhilarating and frenzied season. As they do, they’ll focus squarely on building their strength, fine-tuning their plays and sizing up their competition.
At the same time, those gridiron athletes should also focus intently on the life-threatening dangers of the rough-and-tumble sport, most notably brain injuries. A three-day series that began Sunday in The Vindicator does just that. The comprehensive reporting clearly illustrates that the debilitating consequences of concussions must remain in the forefront of our collective national consciousness.
SCOPE OF THE PROBLEM
As NewsOutlet.org reporter Rachel Kerr writes in one of today’s stories in the series, as many as 3.8 million sports- and recreation-related concussions occur every year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What’s more, concussion rates among U.S. high-school athletes more than doubled between 2005 and 2012, according to an Ohio State University study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine.
At first glance, those skyrocketing numbers may shock the senses. On closer examination, however, the significant uptick in brain-injury reports most likely parallels greatly enhanced awareness of the long-term impact of concussions and greatly increased reporting of them.
Concussions, after all, cannot be taken lightly. The injury to the brain produces a transient loss of brain function with symptoms of dizziness, lightheadedness, confusion, headache and vision changes. Recovery usually occurs within a short time, but research shows that youth athletes take longer to recuperate and that teenage players are at much greater risk for repetitive head trauma.
Clearly, the dangers of head trauma can no longer be callously tossed to the sidelines as just a hazard of the game. As Dr. Joseph Rosenthal, clinical assistant professor of physical medicine at OSU, points out, if young people “continue to play while symptomatic, they are at risk for a second impact that can lead to severe disability and death.”
COHESIVE TEAM STRATEGY
To avoid such catastrophic outcomes and to prevent even that first blow to the brain, a cohesive team strategy must be galvanized. Players, parents, coaches, athletic associations, the medical community and lawmakers all have key positions to play in crafting a forceful defensive strategy.
President Barack Obama recently established himself as the captain of that team. At a May 29 White House summit on concussions and youth athletics, the chief executive appealed for more robust research into youth concussions, saying there remains deep uncertainty over both the scope of brain injuries and their long-term impacts on young people. Toward closing the knowledge gap, Obama announced a $30 million project by the Defense Department and the National Collegiate Athletic Association to study the risks for concussions and best treatment options for brain injuries.
On the private-sector playing field, the National Football League is committing $25 million over the next three years to promoting youth-sports safety, including support for pilot programs to put more athletic trainers in schools.
In Ohio, legislators two years ago enacted some of the toughest provisions in the nation to protect the state’s 350,000 youth athletes in public-school sports. The law that took effect last fall mandates that student athletes and parents sign a promissory note that they will contact coaches, school administrators and health-care providers whenever an injury occurs. That’s prudent public policy, not only for football but for soccer, baseball, basketball, lacrosse and even cheerleading.
SQUEEZE PLAY IN GENERAL ASSEMBLY
Unfortunately, however, just last month, state legislators committed a error when they quietly tucked into a state education bill a provision to pave the way for chiropractors to determine when and if an athlete with a concussion can return to play. Such a provision was removed from the original 2012 legislation; Gov. John Kasich vetoed it when it sneaked its way into a 2013 budget bill. This year, legislators got even more crafty by inserting it into an education bill, which is veto-proof by the governor.
Outrage and opposition have been swift responses to this squeeze play. Medical professionals argue that chiropractors are not sufficiently trained to make potentially life-or-death decisions about injured youths’ brains. Among those fighting the new rule are the Ohio State Medical Association, the Ohio Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Ohio Children’s Hospital Association, the Ohio Hospital Association, leading physicians from the Cleveland Clinic and many others. Given these groups’ authority and unanimity, state legislators should respectfully listen and swiftly act to strike the offensive provision.