During a football game Friday night at a New York high school, a 16-year-old running back collapsed on the field after a helmet-to-helmet hit during the third quarter. On Monday, just as fellow students had gathered to show their support for him, the player died in the hospital where he had been taken after losing consciousness at the game.
That, of course, is an extreme example of how serious concussive head injuries suffered on the playing field can be. Unfortunately, they are not that rare.
Research by The New York Times found that at least 50 youth football players, high-school aged or younger, from 20 different states have died or sustained serious head injuries on the field since 1997. That, of course, doesn’t begin to account for all the concussions sustained, head injuries that could take their toll in later life.
In light of the danger of sports-related concussions, we are glad that state lawmakers and local school districts seem to be taking the threat more seriously. A bill passed by the S.C. Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Nikki Haley in June requires all school districts in the state to formally develop their own concussion policies and guidelines based on recommendations from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.
The law also requires athletes who might have suffered a concussion to be taken off the field for evaluation, and mandates that parents and players be informed about the dangers of concussions.
Rock Hill school board members got a look at the new district-wide policy last week. Currently, local schools have their own concussion policies, but they already conform in most respects to the new district policy.
The only significan addition is the required acknowledgement by parents that they have read about the dangers of concussions. Nonetheless, we think instituting a uniform policy that applies to every school in the district is a good idea.
The district policy appears to be a sensible approach to the problem. It also reflects a changing attitude on the part of those running sports programs regarding the seriousness of concussions.
In the past, a player who appeared woozy after a hit to the head might have been told to “shake it off” and get back in the game. Under new state requirements, any athlete who is even suspected of sustaining a concussion must leave practice or the game until a physician evaluates the extent of the injury.
If cleared, the athlete can return to the field. Bit if it is determined that a student has suffered a concussion, he or she must have written permission from a doctor before “a gradual return to play” after remaining symptom free for a minimum of five days.
Giving players the time needed to fully recover is crucial. Resuming practice or competing in a game too soon can result in more trauma to a brain that still is suffering the effects of the initial concussion, which can result in permanent brain injury or even death.
Again, it is gratifying that state lawmakers and school officials appear to be taking the danger of concussions seriously. But real progress also must include a change in the macho sports culture that rewards players who ignore pain or even symptoms of serious injury to return to the game – often with the encouragement of coaches.
And in some cases, it’s the players themselves who perpetuate the macho ethos, intentionally head butting and spearing with helmets during games. While those moves are illegal, officials sometimes miss them – or worse, look the other way.
Officials ought to have more penalty options to help stop this behavior. In addition to penalizing the team for unsportsmanlike conduct, officials should be able to eject the offending player for a penalty period, like they do in hockey, or, for subsequent offenses, for the whole game.
Everyone involved in athletics needs to know that the threat of concussions is taken seriously. That includes players, coaching staff, officials and fans in the stands.
These aren’t gladiatorial games. Let’s do what is necessary to help prevent players from being seriously injured.