A spate of concussions during week six of the NFL season has prompted national debate about head injuries in football. In one helmet-to-helmet collision, replayed throughout the following week and fodder for sports radio, Atlanta’s Dunta Robinson and Philadelphia’s DeSean Jackson were both led from the field on stretchers.
The NFL, fearing a public backlash, moved swiftly, decreeing that dangerous tackles would henceforth be severely punished regardless of malice. Robinson, deemed the culprit, was fined $50,000 in addition to the concussion that kept him out of action last weekend.
The eye-opening incident has led to questions about safety at the high school level, where a disparity of resources and fewer uniform guidelines are among concerns of safety advocates.
Dr. Ken Mautner, sports medicine physician and assistant professor in the Department of Orthopaedics at Emory University School of Medicine, sees a myriad of problems.
“As much as you hate to see it [recent NFL incidents], it raises awareness of these issues,” he said. “And I see awareness and recognition as the key.”
Awareness, in Mautner’s opinion, transcends a coach just pulling a player out after a potential concussion. “All coaches should go through education and then educate the athletes themselves,” he said. “Athletes, too, can try and hide the symptoms.”
Concussions are caused when the brain is rocked back and forth as a result of an impact. In some cases, another blow to the concussed head can cause death or brain damage.
Disorientation, dizziness and an inability to answer simple questions are among the common, i mmediate post-impact symptoms – and, according to Stone Mountain coach Dante Ferguson, are well known throughout DeKalb County’s coaching fraternity.
“We ask lots of basic questions, and a lot of it is just having that gut feeling,” he said. “Once you have that red flag, you’re just not going back in there.”
According to Georgia High School Association guidelines, players are not allowed to participate in any physical activities on the same day of a concussion, which can only be evaluated by “a proper health care professional.”
However, the same rule also states that an “appropriate health care professional must be determined by each school district with respect to state laws and local preferences.”
It’s this kind of inconsistency that concerns Mautner. He points to the Zachary Lystedt Law in the state of Washington as the kind of legislation that should be adopted throughout the country.
“It states that any athlete with a concussion can’t play until being cleared by a health care provider,” he said. “Currently, 10 states are adopting the law, but Georgia isn’t one of them.”
Lystedt suffered a crippling brain injury during a high school football game after receiving a second impact to the head while carrying a concussion.
Mautner believes that such a law would also help proper diagnosis in “inner-city schools where access to trainers and proper evaluations is harder,” he said.
As a coach in DeKalb County, Ferguson is well aware of the gap in resources in the metro area and believes that athletes would benefit from better equipment. “I have noticed some of the disparities,” he said. “We can get better helmets.”
However, Ferguson also believes that improved concussion prevention, and not just diagnosis, is a responsibility that lies with coaches. “We’re responsible for teaching better tackling techniques, like preventing helmet-to-helmet collisions,” he said. “Safety comes first. We’ve been blessed to not have any concussions this season.”