Last night on CNN, Dr. Sanjay Gupta reported on the dangers of concussions in high school football in the premiere of his documentary, “Big Hits, Broken Dreams.”
The documentary led with the story of Jaquan Waller, a former high school football player from North Carolina who died on the field in 2008 due to “second impact syndrome.” According to a teammate, Waller took a hard hit in practice and “got his bell rung,” but returned to the field 48 hours later without being cleared by a doctor.
After a routine hit in the second quarter, Waller staggered to the sideline, grabbed his coach, then collapsed.
By the time the ambulance arrived, 10 minutes later, Waller was already unconscious. He died shortly thereafter.
According to the Sports Concussion Institute, one in 10 high school football players sustain a concussion each season. Thirty-five percent of those players sustain more than one concussion in a given season.
The documentary then turned to the case of 17-year-old Nathan Stiles, a high school player from Kansas who also died from second impact syndrome in 2010. The Stiles donated their son’s brain to the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, where Dr. Ann McKee is a co-director.
McKee showed Gupta a slide of Stiles’ brain, which had clear evidence of the same tau protein deposits found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. According to McKee, those tau formations shouldn’t be occurring for decades in the 17-year-old.
That disease (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) has only been found in the brains of patients who’ve sustained repetitive blows to the head. The average high school player sustains more than 650 subconcussive hits per season, according to the documentary.
McKee suggests rule and equipment changes to improve player safety in youth football, such as banning helmet-to-helmet contact in practice and moving forward kickoff lines to reduce collisions.
Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz, winner of a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” for his research on sports-related concussions, agreed with McKee’s suggestions when he spoke with Gupta, saying that football “may need to become more like a soccer game.”
He teaches young players to tackle with their hands instead of their heads, and to keep their heads up for maximum awareness.
Many of these suggestions were echoed at the Youth Sports Safety Conference held by the National Athletic Trainers’ Association back in December.
At the conference, the NATA panelists urged every school in the U.S. to develop an emergency action plan, regardless of whether or not they had an athletic trainer on staff.
Is There Any Solution?
Much of the documentary focused on the role that athletic trainers and medical staff can play in preventing second impact syndrome or post-concussive symptoms. At J.R. Rose, Waller’s old high school, no football player suffered from either second impact syndrome or post-concussive symptoms in the year that Gupta followed them, when they had a full-time athletic trainer on hand.
For schools with already crimped budgets, Gupta suggested tapping local graduate school programs, as students can already be certified athletic trainers, with one-third of the price tag.
At the NATA conference, Rhonda Fincher of the Kendrick Fincher Hydration Foundation said, “If they can have an athletic program, they should have an athletic trainer. A coach does not have the expertise to make some of these medical determinations, even if they go to a general course to recognize symptoms of common illnesses. “
In a blog item for CNN, Gupta concludes:
Whether it is the mandatory presence of athletic trainers who can diagnose concussions and are empowered to sit a player out, or it is fewer practices with full gear and repeated drills involving hits to the head—there are so many simple things that can be done to preserve the game, and the men who play it.
Fewer than half of U.S. high schools currently have certified athletic trainers on site, according to the documentary.
Here’s an idea of some potential rule changes we could see in coming years, in the name of player safety.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.