As awareness of high school football concussion risk increases, athletes’ safety is lagging behind

Javaughn Samuels, a junior and varsity football player at Benjamin N. Cardozo High School in the Bayside community of Queens, New York, had not played for his school’s team until this year. But given that the safety of football players has increasingly become a priority over the years, he is confident that the risk to his health is minimal.

“The way the game is played today has evolved and improved overtime,” the 16-year-old Samuels said. “The tackling techniques have tremendously changed — for instance, now you must keep your head up during a tackle. Therefore, yes, I do believe that the way the game is played today is much safer for my health.”

Some of his teammates have argued otherwise about their risk for concussion, a head injury that affects the brain.

“A lot of the times in the past, while being tackled, players’ helmets have easily fallen off, because they are never secure enough,” said Jamil Ducker, an 18-year-old senior and cornerback on the Cardozo football squad.

Even while some coaches, players and parents believe the safety has improved greatly, a Centers for Disease Control study shows that it’s actually just awareness of concussion risk in high school athletes that has increased over the years. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the possibility of students between ages 14 and 19 of obtaining a concussion has risen 200 percent in the last decade. However, Cardozo’s Athletic Department claims to have taken every step possible to minimize long-term head injuries, some of which can even prove fatal.

Christopher Travers, Cardozo’s athletic trainer, said he requires all athletes to play by the book and follow rules that help ensure their safety. “The rules have changed to minimize the risk of concussion… The way the game is played is definitely safer for their health,” he said.

During a recent practice, Cardozo football coach Joseph Kaso grouped players according to their positions and went through a number of defensive and offensive plays for an upcoming game. After warm-ups and drills, some of the players practiced tackling one another.

Travers said he teaches proper tackle techniques to his athletes. Nonetheless, Ducker said he has seen Cardozo players and players on the opposing team not following those techniques. The perpetual desire to win causes some players to endanger not only themselves, but also someone on the opposing team, Ducker said.

“I utilize the correct form of tackling and know how to take a hit,” he said. “However, it still doesn’t affect the way people choose to run into and hit one another.”

In an email, Dr. Andrew E. Lincoln, director of the MedStar Sports Medicine Research Center in Baltimore, stated that decreasing the risk of concussion requires athletic directors and coaches to make “significant changes in their adoption of concussion management plans, their emphasis on reporting signs and symptoms of concussions, [and their] practice routines.” Lincoln said that these steps are critical, but still have a not been widely adopted.

A concussion is a type of head injury in which the brain is bounced around in the skull after a hard fall or hit to the head, according to the CDC. The symptoms of a concussion include headaches, fatigue, dizziness, sensitivity to light or noise, problems with concentration and memory and insomnia, Lincoln said in the email.

Although some players may think it is best to overlook these signs and continue to play in the game, experts have said it is crucial to seek help and notify coaches and parents as soon as the symptoms are apparent. The brain is resilient and will attempt to heal itself but, if symptoms are ignored, an athlete has a high chance of acquiring yet another concussion. In some cases, this can be fatal, according to experts.

Travers said he encourages athletes to come to him if they feel they’ve sustained a head injury. “By law, any player cannot go back into the game if they believe to have a concussion,” he added. During games, there is a doctor on the field and everyone is required to follow the doctor’s orders at all times, the athletic trainer said.

Although there is great popularity around the sport, the risk of head injury to young athletes still worries many fans. “The increased attention has likely raised concern…with fewer parents allowing their kids to play football out of fear of possible long-term effects,” Lincoln said.

Moms and dads play a major role in protecting their sons from potentially getting hurt, Lincoln added. “Parents spend significant time and effort to explore the best education or daycare for their kids, and sports should be no different,” he said.

It’s important to verify whether a team is using protective equipment that meets the guidelines of the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, among other groups, Lincoln said. They should also have clearly stated emergency action and concussion management plans, he said.

At the end of Cardozo’s football practice, Ducker said he would never ignore an injury as serious as a concussion. “I love football and being with my family on the field, but if I was to ever obtain a concussion, I would have to step down, because my safety comes first,” he said.