At La Crescent and Aquinas High Schools, both programs make a point to teach proper tackling form and technique to their players. Despite their efforts though, fears of concussions are keeping potential players off of the field and away from the game.
Only 27 players have signed up for football at La Crescent High School—down from 32 last year. “If it is a scare of concussions, maybe it's coming from the parents making sure their kids are safe,” La Crescent Head Football Coach Brad Groth said. “I think there is a little bit of a misconception that football might not be that safe, there might be a lot of concussions, especially since it's kind of been blown up with the NFL issues lately.”
At Aquinas High School, only 33 students are signed up—down about a dozen from last year. “Football is a tough sport, and its got a culture of being tough and machismo and all that stuff, but I think people have read enough and seen enough about the effects of head injuries where they want to be careful with that stuff,” Aquinas Head Football Coach Tom Lee said.
Groth said his staff is taking extra precaution with the risk of concussions. “If there is any question whatsoever, even if they didn't have a concussion, it's better to be on the safe side and hold them out until we know what is going on."
If concussions aren't treated properly, it could lead to brain damage and life-threatening injuries. “From middle school to high school, they have a risk of second-impact syndrome,” Gundersen Health System Sports Medicine Athletic Trainer Lori Clayton said. “That is where you have a concussion and receive another impact, and it's almost like you get a second concussion."
Gundersen Health System reported 107 concussions across all high school sports in 2013-2014. Despite concussion numbers not being recorded until last year, Clayton assumes the overall concussion numbers are down from previous years because of increased awareness. “Teaching kids to have good helmets, we help our coaches fit their helmets so they have good-fitting helmets,” Clayton said. “We make sure they have proper-fitting mouth guards. We also encourage neck-strengthening, as well as shoulder-strengthening programs in the weight room so kids are getting stronger.”
Schools have also implemented Impact testing for all student-athletes who may play a sport with a high risk of collision. Impact testing, a computer-based test for athletes, gives trainers an idea how an athlete's brain functions. “It's a computer-based test that they take at the high school and this gives us baseline information on how their brain functions on an everyday basis,” Clayton said. “If an athlete were to sustain a concussion again, we could have a post-injury test done, and they can compare it to the baseline test and that helps make our return to play decisions.”
Despite improvements in testing, football is still a collision sport. “Basketball is a contact sport. That could be dangerous, but these are collisions and guys collide with one another.,” Lee said. “I would love to promise every kid in our room and every parent that their son is not going to get injured, but it's part of the game and that's the way it is.”
Lee said people may be “hyper-sensitive” to the risk of concussions, but that's ok, because in the end, a kid's health comes first. “We're certainly more aware and more sensitive to it,” Lee said. “We understand that if you don't get it taken care of right away, it gets worse, and if it gets worse, you'll be out longer.”
Groth said though it can be difficult for players to know how to play hard while remaining cautious. “It's a sense of pride that these kids, they want to be in there, they want to play, they don't want to get taken out, they don't want to miss the reps,” Groth said. “The game means so much to the kids, especially if you're a senior, you don't want to miss that. There are certain things you don't want to miss. They are covering things up maybe, and saying they're ok, and maybe they don't even realize themselves and maybe their friends are saying 'hey, there is just not something right here with my buddy'.”
With Wisconsin's Concussion law from 2011, if an athlete displays any signs or symptoms of a concussion—such as nausea, dizziness, headaches, or other symptoms—they are automatically ruled out of physical activity for the remainder of the day. With the law, all players must be cleared by a doctor before returning to the field.
Clayton said not just football, but every sport has danger to it. If appropriate measures are taken, such as educating parents and kids how to prevent a concussion from happening or getting worse, football can be a safe sport.