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Tackling Concussion Risks

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She remembers the back of her head hitting the ground.

The other players race against one another to try to gain possession of the loose ball.

She dives for the ball. She pulls the ball away from the crowd.

The momentum causes her to fall back.

Her head hits the ground and she sees black.

“Was I diagnosed with a concussion? Was a trainer there? No. Not at all.” Kristy Prasad, athletic director, said as she recalled a time she believed she suffered a concussion during a high school basketball game. For about three days, Prasad says she had several severe headaches, a common symptom found in concussions, as well as a lack of coordination following her head injury.

“I felt very wobbly and my balance was very off at the time. But, I think the biggest thing for me was that I’m not a person who typically gets headaches. And I had really, really bad headaches afterwards.” Prasad said.

For decades, there have been debates on the efficiency, emphasis, and implementation of player safety in contact sports, such as football, which is considered one of the most dangerous sports with an increased risk of injuries. The concern of player safety was a response to the recent findings of an increase of concussions in football, as well as its link to long-term brain injuries being found in the majority of retired NFL players.

“My biggest priority is the safety of my players.” Prasad said. “And for me, that’s the bigger motivator. My sense of responsibility to my student athletes.”

The issue of player safety in the NFL was first brought to attention in 2002, when Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist and co-founder of the Brain Injury Research Institute Committee was the first to identify chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disease that is believed to be caused by repetitive trauma to the head, in American football players. He identified CTE in the brain of former Pittsburgh center Mike Webster who committed suicide at the age of 50. In 2005 and 2006, Omalu identified CTE in the brains of former Pittsburgh Steelers players Terry Long, 45, and Andre Waters, 44. Both committed suicide.   

In 2007, in attempts to resolve the issue of player safety with his findings and diagnosis of CTE, Omalu presented his findings to NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell. However, Omalu’s research was dismissed. Seven years after Omalu’s discovery, the NFL publically acknowledged the link between concussions sustained in football and CTE in December 2009.

Omalu’s story was recently dramatized in the film “Concussion”, and was portrayed by actor Will Smith. The film received a mixed reviews and led to parents questioning if they should let their children play football.  

Bryan Daley, social science teacher, football fan, and a father of two children says he would refuse to let his children play football unless further research is done.

“No I will not,” Daley said. “Because of the inherent risk and until technology catches up to the danger of ramifications of head trauma, I wouldn’t let them play football as of this moment. “Now my son is eight and if six years from now,  he’s 14 and going into high school, and if there had been studies done on the helmets, the gear, and the protocols in place then that might change.”

Varsity football player Joseph Patterson says his mother encouraged him to play football despite the higher risks of injury so he would have the opportunity to experience team bonding and sportsmanship. Patterson says he would encourage his children to play football.

“Yeah in football you get hurt, and yeah it’s a tough sport to play, but when you play with the same people you really make a bond with them,” Patterson said.

Over the last decade, the NFL  has made changes to the game to ensure the health and safety of players of football. There have been more than 40 rule changes,  including strict concussion protocols and better training and sideline health care. The new rule changes sparked outrage among some football fans, as it was believed to be changing the dynamics of football.  As a football enthusiast himself, Patterson was at first skeptical of the rule changes.  

“At first I got kind of mad, because in football you’re going to get hurt,” Patterson said. “[The players] are getting paid millions to play something they love and they grew up getting hurt. No football player is ever going to have a career where they didn’t have one single injury.” [With the new rule changes] the game looked soft at first. I think now the rules are better than throwing people’s lives at stake here.”

Prasad believes the rules won’t change what the game of football is. She believes the backlash from football fans is typical behavior to cultural change.

“I think those are the individuals that have the hardest time understanding that these men are putting their bodies and their lives on the line when they are actually playing the game, that these things actually happen,” Prasad said. “And because we’re putting in rules to protect individuals doesn’t mean it lessens what football is. It will never diminish the game.”

Hayward School District nurse Rachel Barron is optimistic about the NFL’s efforts to raise concussion awareness and efforts to better player safety. However, she believes awareness should start at a younger age.

“If you get a concussion really early on, then it could affect how you play and how you learn as you’re growing up because you’re still developing.” Barron said. “And your brain doesn’t stop developing until your late 20s.”  

 In an effort to ensure player safety, the state of California Senate passed Assembly Bill No. 2127 and was put into effect January 1, 2012.

The bill prohibits high school and middle football teams from school districts, charter schools, or private schools to conduct more than two full-contact practices per week during the preseason and regular season. The bill also prohibits the full-contact portion of a practice to exceed 90 minutes in a single day, and completely prohibits full-contact practice during the off-season.

 In addition, the law requires that a school district, charter school, or private school or athletic program to immediately remove an athlete from athletic activity for the rest of the day if suspected of sustaining a head injury or concussion and prohibits the athlete from returning to the activity until he or she is evaluated and has received written clearance from a licensed  health care provider. The athlete is required to complete a graduated return-to-play protocol in a minimum of seven days under the supervision of a licensed health care provider.  

As a means of minimizing head injuries, varsity football coach Justin Redemer and his staff took a class on proper tackling techniques during a trip to a clinic.

“We really just tried to have an environment that was about tempo and energy and execution, but without the violence and danger that comes with the game,” Redemer said.

According to Prasad, football drills have been modified to limit player-to-player contact. Rather than practice tackling techniques during full-contact practices, the players practice on dummies.

“There are different things that you can use rather than putting an individual against another.” Prasad said.  

Prasad believes that the modified drills’ emphasis on technique has made an impact on the football team’s performance in games.  

 “I made the comment to [Coach Redemer] earlier this year and I was like, ‘I feel like our kids are tackling way better. It’s much more efficient.’” Prasad said. “I think that has a lot to do with focusing on the technique of what’s appropriate for football rather than the viciousness of it.”

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