'Every Head Counts': Legislating Kids, Sports and Concussions

There’s a concussion crisis in the United States

Will reducing concussions take the fun out of sports?
 

On the morning of Saturday September 18, 2004, 15-year-old Colorado high-school freshman Jacob Snakenberg geared up for his upcoming football game.

His mom recalls asking Jake if he felt well enough to play that day. He'd been injured in a game the week before. The young fullback said he felt fine. A few hours later, he was running out onto the field.

Jake took a hit during warm-up that made him shake a bit. He nodded to his mom that everything was all right.

During the game, he took another hit. He fell down, stood up slowly, then fell down again. Jake’s mom waited for her son to stand up. He never did.

Jake had been dropped by second impact syndrome—a second concussion occurring before a first concussion has properly healed. Suffering severe brain swelling, he was rushed to the hospital, where he died the next day.

According to former professional athlete Chris Nowinski,  there’s a concussion crisis in the United States, and it applies to adult and youth sports alike. Parents, coaches and players need information to protect themselves.

“We’re really starting to appreciate that concussions are far more damaging to the brain than we ever realized,” Nowinski tells TakePart. “They’re more damaging for children than they are for adults. We’re also recognizing that we aren’t currently able to diagnose most concussions. There’s a real urgency to change what’s happening on the field with young kids.”

Nowinski played college football at Harvard University before launching his career as a professional wrestler with World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). In 2003, multiple concussions forced Nowinski to step out of the ring for good.

In 2007, Nowinski co-founded the Sports Legacy Institute, which is dedicated to concussion research, treatment, education and prevention. He is the author of Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis From the NFL to Youth Leagues.

Advances are constantly being made in sports-related brain injury research and legislation, but as Nowinski explains, there’s a long way to go.

YOUTH CONCUSSION LAW

On March 29, 2011, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed the nation’s most sweeping youth-concussion bill to date. Named in honor of Jake Snakenberg, the law requires coaches to bench head-injured players as young as 11 until the player is cleared by a doctor. A registered athletic trainer must then manage the student’s gradual return to play.

The law also requires all public and private school coaches, as well as volunteer Little League and Pop Warner coaches, to take free annual online training to recognize concussion symptoms.

Laws address youth concussions in 12 other states, but most don’t apply to volunteer coaches, or cover athletes as young as 11 years old.

Nowinski tells TakePart that the Jake Snakenberg act is a start. “The biggest problem facing the concussion issue right now is education,” he says. “We can’t possibly think we can protect our children if we don’t tell both the kids and their coaches what this incredibly serious injury is, and why they need to change what they’ve been doing. Mandating education is key. Using legislation to mandate ‘no return to play same day’ is the fastest way we can get that policy adopted across the board.”

One hole in the youth concussion law, according to Nowinski, has to do with age. “As good as laws are for the age groups that are covered, there needs to be an additional push to rethink what we’re doing to the youngest kids,” says Nowinski, noting that the Colorado act only applies to children ages 11 or older.

“What’s happening to the kids between ages six and 10?” he asks. “What do they have? No access to medical folks. They don’t even have the language skills to really tell you when they’re having problems cognitively or have a headache. They look like they’re not hitting each other hard, and there’s no force going to their brain, but studies show that’s not true.”

Nowinski is focused on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)—a progressive degenerative disease with Alzheimer’s-like symptoms caused by multiple concussions over time. Most concussion legislation is written to be changed annually as our understanding of brain injuries develops. Nowinski hopes that CTE research will be incorporated into future laws and educational programs.

LEARNING FROM THE PAST

When Nowinski was a high-school athlete, laws and procedures governing the way coaches handled head injuries didn’t exist. “I was lucky to have a very enlightened athletic trainer,” he remembers. “He was very knowledgeable, but part of the reason he was so knowledgeable was because a kid in my high school died of second impact syndrome. It was my sophomore football coach’s son. The story we all were told at the beginning of the year was that Kurt Thyreen died of second impact syndrome because he got two concussions in two weeks.”

Thyreen’s head had been hurting all week, but he didn’t tell anyone. The band leader knew of Thyreen’s headache because the teen was in too much pain to play the trumpet. “But nobody told the coaches, and nobody told the athletic trainer,” says Nowinski. “So Kurt played football again, and he died.”

According to Nowinski, even Thyreen’s tragic story wasn’t enough to permanently change coaching habits. “One conversation is not going to get you,” Nowinski says. “Coaches need to be reminded that every head counts, and they’re not doing their job unless they’re minimizing hits in the head as much as possible.”


Photo: Brian J. McDermott/Creative Commons via Flickr.

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