As young players return to the gridiron, coaches, parents, doctors and officials work to keep kids safe from concussions
Tessa Berg photo
Bright Friday-night lights flashed on late last month, with a joyous eruption of referee whistles, nervous first snaps and punishing hits. This season, those licks will leave tens of thousands of high-school and youth-league football players with concussions. “Players, coaches and parents do get the severity of what concussions can lead to,” says Rick Barnes, speaking for the Central Ohio Football Officials Association Executive Board. “But players are still under the impression they are invincible, and some try to hide the severity of injury.” As Central Ohio kicks off its first football season under a new statewide concussion law, here’s what’s being done to keep kids safe.
Ohio’s Return to Play law states that any player younger than 19 who shows concussion symptoms must be removed from play, kept out for at least 24 hours and cleared by a licensed health professional before returning. It also requires coaches and referees to complete a concussion-education course. “We’ve basically approached this as, ‘What you’re going to do to coach or officiate in our state is that you’re going to err on the side of keeping kids safe,’ ” says Deborah Moore, associate commissioner of the Ohio High School Athletic Association, which enacted a concussion policy several years ago. “People are following through.”
Companies have worked for more than a decade to engineer concussion-proof helmets. Riddell’s Revolution, released in 2000, became the most widely used in the NFL and popular among young athletes, in part because of its controversial claim to decrease concussion risk by 31 percent. Yet most scientists say helmets don’t prevent concussions. A recent study of 1,300 Wisconsin high-school athletes found that players wearing older models received as much protection as players with new ones.
- Nationally, at least 50 youth football players have died or sustained serious head injuries on the field since 1997, according to a New York Times study.
- Each year, high-school football produces about 67,000 diagnosed concussions.
- Football has the highest concussion rate of any sport.
Many coaches believe that preventing concussions starts with proper technique. In a proper tackle, explains longtime Westerville South High School head coach Rocky Pentello, a player keeps his knees bent, weight centered and eyes up. That way, he can target the midsection and avoid getting blindsided. “You see what you hit; you hit on the rise,” he says. “Those things are going to help a lot.” Pentello and his staff work to avoid helmet-to-helmet collisions and ensure that concussion guidelines are followed. “The players are more aware,” he adds, “and the trainers are more aware.”