Require Baseline Concussion Testing For Youth Sports

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Football-big-thumb~2A modified version of this was originally published in the “Viewpoints” section of The Buffalo News on Sunday, June 24, 2012 under the title “Require baseline concussion testing for youth sports”

 
“To be fair, I should state right off the bat that I’m a football mom and a coach’s wife. Three of my children are boys and all of them played for youth sports associations. All three of them also suffered injuries during their time playing sports. Luckily, none of those injuries was severe enough to warrant a trip directly from the field to the emergency room for further treatment, although over the years I have witnessed more than my fair share of ambulances rushing an injured athlete from the field to the hospital. I’m positive that I’m not the only mom who has ever said a silent prayer for the child being whisked away while at the same time breathing a sigh of relief that it wasn’t mine.

However, our oldest son did end up in the ER a couple of days after a game for a CT scan. When the doctor asked if he’d ever sustained a serious head injury, we could only shrug and say that to the best of our recollection he hadn’t. Sure he’d been knocked around quite a bit over the years; he’d played football since he was in elementary school. But a serious head injury? We’d never considered any of the hits he’d taken to be serious, even when he’d been removed from play for fear that he might have sustained a concussion. When the results of the CT scan came back that he had a possible brain bleed and we took him for further testing, we were asked over and over again how many serious hits to the head he’d taken over the years. Because there was no baseline testing for youth sports done at the time, we had no records to fall back on and had to rely solely on our memories in order to try and assist medical staff.

There is an interesting debate going on right now about the safety of the athletes in all facets of youth sports. We see stories on the evening news about children who have suffered concussions so severe playing youth soccer that they suffer constant, debilitating headaches. Concussions have also long been an issue in youth football and hockey. And although every team strives to make sure that its athletes are being supplied all of the necessary safety equipment so that they might avoid injury, the rate of children being seen in emergency rooms for concussion-related symptoms has doubled in the last decade.

This dramatic increase in numbers begs the question: Are there actually more concussions being suffered or are coaches, sideline trainers and parents better able to identify the symptoms of concussion and therefore availing themselves more frequently to the medical community in order to treat that which is now being recognized as a very real and serious health risk to young athletes?

The question that continues to go unanswered, though, is when is enough, enough? What standards are youth sports associations guided by in order to determine if symptoms that could signify concussion are serious enough to sideline a player for the remainder of a game, the remainder of a season or worst-case scenario, indefinitely? Who is making the rules and what criteria are the policy makers using in order to keep our children safe?

The lack of a comprehensive national standard for very young children (under ten years of age) involved in youth sports only serves to muddy the waters when it comes to local associations trying to put together any sort of remedial, cost-effective baseline testing program for their own athletes. Without a baseline test it’s difficult to gauge the severity of a very young athlete’s concussion, which may lead to a child being sent back out to play before he/she is actually medically ready. There’s also the question of cost. It seems a logical conclusion that the suburban associations would have an easier time absorbing the cost of hiring a qualified physician to administer baseline testing to each of their athletes than their urban counterparts, although any association that is struggling financially, no matter where it’s located, could end up under water on the issue. The unfortunate reality is that until a mandatory national standard for children ages five and up is put in place and used by all youth sports associations, only some kids will receive the necessary testing.

So what’s the solution? We as parents are our child’s first line of defense. We need to approach our associations and ask whether they are working toward instituting a comprehensive baseline concussion testing program and if they are, what sort of testing is being done for children under the age of ten. We need to ask what the costs associated with it will be and how we as parents can help to make it work. Will our role be to do extra fundraising or will we simply have to accept the fact that our children’s teams may not get all of the cosmetic improvements that we might like? Perhaps we need to let our associations know that we are in favor of substance over style and that we are willing to forgo non-essentials like new uniforms or our children’s names on their jerseys in order to put those same funds to better use.

I wonder what the loved ones of NFL players Dave Duerson, Andre Waters, Terry Long and our own Justin Strzelczyk would say if we asked them? Or family members of NHL “enforcers” Wade Belak, Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien? Would they say that we should sit idly by and let our youth sports associations make a decision about our children’s safety based on what they believe is most cost-effective? Would they agree that until handling a safety concern is legislated and made mandatory, ignoring it is acceptable because it might be “difficult” or “too time consuming” to administer? Would those deceased players’ moms say that we should let an association brush off our concerns by labeling us as stereotypically overprotective? Would their dads agree that it’s O.K. to be intimidated into not asking questions because we might not know as much about the rules and fundamentals of the game as the coaches do? Or would the family members who have lost loved ones due to complications associated with traumatic brain injury after playing in the NFL and NHL say that parents of youth athletes should stand up for their children’s best interests; that we should approach our sports associations and ask to open a dialogue about the real cost of comprehensive baseline concussion testing in youth sports?

Tiaina Baul Seau Jr. used to say, “Work for today, plan for tomorrow and pray for the rest.” I think we need to work diligently to keep our children safe today, help to put systems in place in order to ensure that they are given every opportunity for bright tomorrows and to say a prayer for the people who administer youth sports associations and make the rules that our athletes will have to play by. We owe our children no less.”

**For more information on baseline concussion testing, please visit http://www.impacttest.com

Doing Better Right Now

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Screenshot_2014-08-29-13-34-37~2The announcement yesterday that Roger Goodell had sent a letter to all of the NFL team owners regarding changes to the league’s Personal Conduct Policy regarding domestic violence and sexual assault had newsfeeds jammed with commentary. I’ve been trying to decide since I read Goodell’s statement whether or not I should put my own two-cents in regarding the new disciplinary actions, standards and policies set forth by the governing body of the multi-billion dollar industry that is pro-football.

I will try and keep it short.

I think that the new disciplinary actions are appropriately stringent: six game unpaid suspension for a first offense and indefinite but minimum one year suspension for a second offense. The offender would have to file for reinstatement after that one year period and there is no guarantee (implied or otherwise) that he would get his job back. The expanded educational components, i.e. character training provided to college, high school and youth football programs for players as well as all coaching staff and employees (the teaching of respect for oneself and for others) is a critical element in stopping domestic violence and sexual assault before it starts, and I was thrilled to see that the governing body of the NFL will be pouring much needed funds into this essential element. Prevention is the key.

My biggest concern with the whole ball of wax are the following two statements: “… appropriate team personnel will undergo comprehensive training to help them understand and identify risk factors associated with domestic violence and sexual assault. Any person identified will be afforded private, confidential assistance…” and “…(the NFL) will ensure trained personnel provide assistance to anyone at risk of becoming a victim or potential aggressor of domestic violence or sexual assault…”.

What does that actually mean? While I understand that Roger Goodell could not lay out every piece of the puzzle and that the NFL has no obligation to release specific details of the new standards, I couldn’t help but wonder: what diagnostic tests are they going to be using to “identify risk factors” and what “risk factors” are they referring to specifically? Are they going to mail home questionnaires to wives and girlfriends? Ask players and personnel to take personality tests? Will intake counseling be done when someone is hired by the NFL? Are they going to do separate intake counseling for children of players and staff? Will the players, staff and their families be shown pictures (“What do you see in this inkblot?”) or will they be asked, “Tell me about your childhood… home life… dreams… previous relationships…fantasies of violence… frequency of use of violent video games/pornography…”?

How will this “appropriate team personnel” be trained in order to identify “potential aggressors” and “anyone at risk of becoming a victim”? What red flags are these human resource professionals, staff counselors and psychologists going to be looking for in order to identify these potential aggressors and victims? Even the most seasoned and highly educated mental health professional would be hard-pressed to agree that they could effectively predict how any human being might react to any situation 100% of the time. Will poor anger management and conflict resolution skills be a red flag? Drug and alcohol abuse? Lack of effective communication skills?

Unfortunately, while all of these issues may lead to difficulties in one’s life and marriage, addressing them alone will not solve the problem of domestic violence or sexual assault. Both domestic violence and sexual assault are control and entitlement issues; solving a drinking or drug problem will not make an abuser stop abusing. Teaching an individual to manage his anger will not stop him from assaulting or intimidating his partner physically, emotionally or psychologically. Teaching a man to communicate more effectively will not stop sexual assault.

While I think that the harsher disciplinary actions and community outreach efforts are a great start, I believe that the NFL needs to take a second look at the “counseling” aspect for perpetrators. If they’re not prepared to address physical/sexual violence against another human being as a completely separate issue from poor anger management/conflict resolution/communication skills and drug and alcohol abuse, then they’re dropping the ball. Now is not the time to fumble or to simply go for the Hail-Mary. What the NFL does from this point on will set a huge precedent. Domestic violence and sexual assault are at the forefront of our minds and hearts right now for a reason. The governing body of the NFL need to say “no more” and they need to mean it. They will not get a second chance; there will be no two-point conversion. They need to do something real and meaningful and they need to do it now. Right now.