SPECIAL REPORT: Concussions in football—what local teams are doing to protect kids’ long-term health

Special Report

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA) — More than a million American high school students play football each year, making it the most-popular sport in the country. As concerns grow about concussions and the possibility they lead to future problems, local teams had to adapt to sweeping changes to keep kids safe.

Logan Raben is a Shiloh Christian football player, and he sees people get concussed on the gridiron every once in a while.

“In our last game, I kinda hit somebody, and his eyes kinda rolled back a little bit,” Raben said. “He was slow to get up.”

Seven out of every 10 people in the emergency room with sports concussions are kids and teens. A concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury when a hit causes the brain to move rapidly inside the skull, according to the Brain Injury Research Institute. Temporary loss of consciousness, “ringing” in the ears and “seeing stars” are tell-tale signs a player might have a concussion.

“I remember an older kid that got hit, and he was way out of it,” Raben said. “It was scary.”

As the top contact sport in America, football is now under the microscope as some people worry about long-term health problems. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head injuries. It’s been in the headlines the past few years as former NFL players feat they could have it.

Former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez was found to have CTE, and his fall from grace included murder charges before he committed suicide in 2017.

“Everybody’s different,” said Dr. Chris Dougherty, the team physician for the Kansas City Royals and Northwest Arkansas Naturals. “It might take you longer to recover than her to recover, so you just have to be patient with the recovery.”

Dougherty said not properly recovering from a concussion can have devastating effects on a player’s brain. More than 50 former NFL players have been confirmed post-mortem to have had CTE, and players like Chris Borland and Joshua Perry retired early to avoid that fate.

“My college roommate had three or four concussions in consecutive football games. He went into a severe state of depression,” Dougherty said. “Guy couldn’t complete his coursework, and it took months for him to recover. That’s the thing to understand is these might not recover right away. They could take months to do so.”

A 2013 study published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine shows bicycling, basketball and football are the sports with highest risk for traumatic brain injuries. One University of Arkansas professor said it’s critical that players with a concussion not return to action and get to a doctor.

We used to think that brain rest and physical and cognitive rest was the best way to manage concussion,” said Dr. R.J. Elbin, an associate professor of exercise science. “Really, in the past couple years, we found that it’s not.”

Elbin said a coach simply asking if a player is okay isn’t enough. He said often, players want to impress coaches, teammates and families, so they rush to get back in the game, when they really need to get to a doctor.

Back in the day, players were expected to recover in about a week—just in time for the next game. Elbin said his team’s research instead found the recovery process should take two to three weeks and include light physical activity.

“It is important that parents weigh out the benefits and risks on whether or not they want their child to not only play football but other contact sports,” Elbin said.

Elbin said football gets a bad rap from many people concerned with possible long-term harmful effects, but science hasn’t determined if football is any worse than other contact sports.

“The game of football is safer now than it’s ever been with advancements in equipment, advances in coaching and strategies, also the eliminating of unnecessary drills that really never had anything to do with football,” Elbin said.

High school coaches in Arkansas are implementing these changes and said they’re paying off.

“In the past two seasons, we’ve had one [concussion],” said Jeff Conaway, Shiloh Christian’s head coach. “I really believe a lot of that is how we practice.”

Conaway said concussion scares prompted his staff to change its drills, practices and techniques.

“More of our success in this area comes with coaches teaching how to tackle and taking the head out of the tackle,” Conaway said.

Equipment has evolved, too, with stronger, more-durable materials.

“I don’t know that there’s a helmet that you could put on that would totally prevent a concussion,” Conaway said. “The helmets we currently use and the pads that we currently play with obviously help a lot.”

Raben said the changes have had a noticeable impact.

“In practice, we’re pretty good about that,” Raben said. “We don’t take to the ground or anything like that.”

But Raben knows nothing is a sure bet.

“It’s, I guess, one of those things where you need to go into it knowing it might happen,” Raben said. “I take those risks every time I go out there, and I’m willing to do that because I love the game.

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