Concussion protocol works to lessen brain trauma

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Aaron Johnson

Player tackles another during a game

Ava Dreyer , Editor

  When watching football with my dad in recent years, he often talks about how many of the hits considered dangerous today would have been legal when he watched as a kid. Concussion protocol for football at all levels has become stricter as more and more people speak out about the serious effects that come with brain trauma.  Organizations like the National Football League, as well as local programs like Weston High School athletics, have implemented more rules to prevent brain injury. 

   “When I first started as an athletic director, we didn’t have baseline concussion testing for our student athletes,” WHS athletic director Mike McGrath said. “Things have transformed for the better because we are much more knowledgeable on the subject now and know what to look for to ensure safety for our athletes.”

   Knowledge is an extremely important factor when it comes to concussion safety and prevention. Former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson suffered two concussions within four days of each other, which led to serious issues.

   “We didn’t know what the long-term effects of concussions were at the time, but I knew something was wrong because I started crying uncontrollably and my body responded in a way that it’s never responded to any other hit to the head.” Johnson said.

   Coach Bill Belicheck went against the recommendation of the Patriot’s head trainer at the time, Jim Whalen, and had Johnson participate in full-contact practices after this injury, which led to his second concussion. This happened in August 2002, and since then research and discoveries have expanded understanding of brain trauma, emphasizing that concussions aren’t something to take lightly.

   “We’ve come a long way because we can’t claim ignorance anymore. We know that there’s a long term impact with multiple head traumas, and we know that there’s an actual brain disease linked to this called CTE,” Johnson said.

   The NFL has cut down on padded practice times, which leads to less opportunity for hits to the head. However, it is not always certain that teams are following the guidelines. At the high school level, teams are given more scrutiny to ensure they are following all MIAA concussion protocols.  

    Since Weston is a smaller-scale athletic program, it is much easier to manage players’ concussions, from assessment to their return to participating in a sport. WHS was one of the first high schools in Massachusetts to implement neurocognitive testing to evaluate concussions. In 2012, Massachusetts created a law regarding head injury assessment and return to play that Weston’s policy largely already reflected. 

   “The law basically states that if an athlete is suspected of a head injury, athletic trainers are required to remove the athlete from competition until further evaluation,” said athletic trainer Andrew Rizza. “If they are assessed with a concussion, we enter them into the concussion protocol that we have developed. Once they return to baseline following their progression through the protocol and re-examination using the neurocognitive testing, we then release them back to athletics.”

   The brain is one of the most important organs in the body. Unlike a broken arm that can usually heal completely, head trauma can leave permanent damage. Brain trauma can also affect one’s personality. It can worsen or create mental illnesses like anxiety and depression, and can make it harder to fall asleep. Even though this information is known, many athletes continue to come back to the game too early, or don’t follow the protocol as they should.

   “Lots of kids want to conceal the injury because they want to play and don’t want to let down teammates. I would say to guard against that,” Johnson said. “Parents should educate their kids on it and tell them why they need to speak up. Parents and athletes need to be transparent and not conceal information. If parents see something they need to say something.”

   In heavy contact sports like football, possible brain trauma is nearly unavoidable because of the nature of the game. Many student athletes face the challenge of whether the possibility of a concussion is worth the risk. 

   “The possibility of brain damage has crossed my mind many times regarding football and hockey, and I think everyone should think about it and consider it before they play a contact sport,” junior Thomas Sacco said. “But personally, I think it’s inevitable that brain damage possibly occurs; it’s just a matter of gauging it  correctly.”

   The possibility of brain trauma is a risk with almost any sport, even ones with less contact. Johnson would allow his son to play football, but would be mindful of and look out for signs of concussions.

   “I wouldn’t let my son play until he was in high school, and I would steer him towards certain positions,” Johnson said. “Not every position is created equal in football, and there are some positions that are more physical than others and lend themselves to more head trauma. So I would steer him towards positions that are less contact with the helmet: wide receiver, tight end, outside linebacker.”

   Athletic programs at all levels have made tremendous strides in recent years to make sports a safer place for athletes. As there is always more work to do, the current practices at WHS are regularly assessed for effectiveness.

   “The only thing I would change [about our concussion protocols] is providing more education,” Rizza said. “I think we are providing the correct care for the student athletes. We will continue to improve our protocols and assessment as research continues to evolve.”