But the good news is increased awareness of the dangers of concussions has produced a different playing field, where athletes are handled differently from the you-just-got-your-bell-rung days.
And despite the spotlight shining on concussions, Daniel Boone athletic director Danny Good said he believes there has been a decline in the number of these injuries in Northeast Tennessee.
“I actually think we are seeing less because of the attention that has been brought to it,” said Good. “A couple of years ago, when it was highlighted, the level was very high. But things have changed.”
Included in the change is the way the games are officiated.
“They have taken out the more violent hits,” said Good. “There are consequences for student-athletes taking cheap shots or blind hits. They’ve cleaned the game up a lot.”
This new way of governing in-game action applies to basketball as well.
“Years ago in basketball, there wasn’t such a thing as a flagrant foul,” said Good. “A much better job is being done in regards to safety.”
WHEN CONCUSSIONS HAPPEN
Even if a student-athlete is suspected of having a concussion, Science Hill trainer Mark McDonald said there is no debate about whether it is or isn’t. The protocol begins.
“You give them tests for mental awareness, quick recall, balance, and vision,” said McDonald. “If they fail that stuff, they’re out of the game.”
Among the TSSAA’s advice for dealing with the issue is not allowing the athlete to return to play on the same day of the injury. Also, the athlete needs to be evaluated by a health-care professional that same day.
But even when following strict concussion protocols, the athletes themselves may hinder the process.
“One thing you worry about is kids trying to hide symptoms, so they can keep playing,” said McDonald. “They may try to lie, especially the tougher kids. In the heat of the game, everybody wants to play.
“But the pupil test, where you shine a light in their eyes, they can’t fake that. The balance test, they can’t fake that. We err on the side of caution.”
INTERRUPTIONS TO DAILY LIFE
If the athlete is displaying bad symptoms, they are not allowed to attend school.
“Being around noise and lights slows the process down,” said McDonald. “The brain needs to rest. Think about it like a sprained ankle. If you walk around on it and don’t let it rest, it won’t heal as fast.”
McDonald was quick to point out a major difference between other injuries and concussions.
“Every concussion is different,” he said. “With an ankle sprain, most kids are the same. With a concussion it varies. We have to get them symptom-free. Sometimes it’s a couple of days, sometimes a couple of weeks. Then it’s a five- or six-day process getting them back to full go.”
And because of the uncertain nature of concussions, it’s nearly impossible to catch everything.
“They may come to me in the fourth quarter and say they took a hit in the first quarter,” said McDonald. “Or they may wake up Saturday, saying their head hurts and then they hurt all weekend. That’s common in football.”
TESTING THE ATHLETES
McDonald checks injured athletes for different symptoms. They are told to rate their symptoms from zero (don’t have any) to six (worst in my life).
“It is based on what the athlete says, but at least you have something to go by,” said McDonald. “Some scores might end up 40 or 50 and they look as healthy as me. Other kids may have scores of 15 to 20 and they look miserable. It can go both ways, but it’s a little extra safety net.”
Dobyns-Bennett athletic director Larry Shively said there has been some decline in the number of athletes playing football because of the concussion issue.
“I think the national attention on concussions has contributed to the slight decline in participation in football,” said Shively. “The last study I read said high school football participation numbers declined by two percent. Even so, football is still the No. 1 participatory high school sport by a wide margin. There are over one million students playing at the high school level, and another three million kids playing at the youth level.”
But Shively added the increased awareness about concussions has helped the game.
“We have instituted the safest techniques when we coach tackling, we purchase the best helmets, and the practice guidelines have been changed in order to keep our students as safe as possible,” said Shively. “I honestly think the game of football is as safe as it has ever been. I have no problem letting my son Trey play football if he chooses to. I know there are risks involved. I also know the benefits in playing — discipline, lifelong friends, teamwork, and selflessness — are important to me.”
One thing that is different in this era is the reduction of concussion-potential parts of practice in football.
“Our practice habits have changed immensely,” said McDonald. “We used to have two-a-days in the fall. We used to do contact every day, but we’ve gotten away from that. Years ago, they would play 11 on 11 for 90 percent of practice. Now we’re not banging heads all the time with full-speed tackling.”
AHEAD OF THE CURVE
Science Hill athletic director Keith Turner said the Hilltoppers have considered concussions a serious subject for many years.
“We started doing a lot of this stuff before it was mandatory,” said Turner. “Mark McDonald worked on different cognitive tests before it became mandatory.”
McDonald said Science Hill has been acutely aware for quite some time.
“We’ve been overly cautious for years,” said McDonald. “We’ve sat kids out longer than necessary. We just wanted to be careful.”