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Guest Post: Parents Hold the Key to Concussion Awareness

2013 March 17

By Brittany Beaumont

It takes less than ten minutes to reach pages eleven and twelve of Concussions and our Kids where just four convincing paragraphs serve as a wakeup call for any parent who has a child participating in youth sports. Written by Robert Cantu, M.D. and Mark Hyman (2012), this book presents solid documentation that concussions (especially multiple concussions or head injuries/trauma) should be taken seriously by parents and coaches alike. However, it appears the words from these esteemed authors are still falling on deaf ears. Not enough has been written to convince those, especially parents of aspiring young football players that it is time for the nation to wake up and demand that those in charge of full contact youth sports be held accountable for their lack of action (or reaction as the case may be) whenever a child is involved in a head injury. Time has run out for local, state, and national organizations who are responsible for promoting youth sports in America to enact simple regulations that will prevent many, if not the majority, of concussions that occur each spring and fall particularly in youth football.  It is time for parents to put the safety and long term health of children ages five to fourteen as a priority and demand changes for youth football.

In an article by James Swift (2012), Is the Gridiron Too Dangerous For Children? Experts Address Youth Football Safety, he includes the following, “While the National Football League (NFL) has made several sweeping changes to its player safety regulations over the last decade, Dr. Cantu said those standards aren’t being replicated in youth football” (Swift, 2012). In fact, the NFL’s Commissioner, Roger Goodell, in his recent state of the NFL annual address in New Orleans prior to Super Bowl XLVII, commented on remarks made by President Barack Obama who indicated he would not allow his own children to play youth football if he had sons (The Miami Herald, 2013). Goodell noted that, “he welcomed recent comments by President Barack Obama about football safety, and said there are constant improvements constantly in treating head injuries. He said the game can be made safer while making football better” (The Miami Herald, 2013). Goodell “welcomes” the statements; but what has he done to help promote change for those youth football players that may one day ascend to the professional level?  Can we assume the ratio of those innocent young athletes who start out at age four or five that actually make it to the professional level is so miniscule that it is not an important topic on his agenda?  Perhaps that is the reason for his lack of reaction to even our President’s obvious concern.  But surely there is someone in the rich and powerful NFL who can see the need to take advantage of the resources that organization has to reach out to almost anyone with an interest in football – especially those naïve and uninformed parents of young football hopefuls?

Take for example the shot after shot during the coverage of Super Bowl XLVII of Goodell sitting with the young nine year old girl who acclaimed national attention when her video was uploaded to YouTube playing football against nine-year-old boys in a pee-wee football league.  Evidently she must have made those other nine-year-old boys looks pretty bad as she has been called a “football phenomenon” (Carson, 2013). Goodell has treated her to a few other NFL games this season touting her as an inspiration for girls to play football.  Imagine the coverage he could amass if he had also entertained a young football player of about ten years old who had been the victim of multiple head injuries? What a warning statement that could have made at this week’s Super Bowl – especially if the announcers chimed in with words of warning to parents to watch for signs of concussions.

But instead of relying on announcers and Goodell to be held accountable for the lack of regulations in pee-wee and youth football leagues across the country, parents may ultimately be the ones who have to signal change.

And here are the reasons why:  (1) According to the Mayo Clinic, “Your brain has the consistency of gelatin. It’s cushioned from everyday jolts and bumps by the cerebrospinal fluid that it floats in, inside your skull. A violent blow to your head and neck or upper body can cause your brain to slide back and forth forcefully against the inner wall of your skull” (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2011).  Not to oversimplify this definition but a parent can relate to gelatin, right? (2) According to Cantu and Hyman (2012), “Concussions also trigger a complicated chain of chemical and metabolic reactions, which are known as the neurometabolilc cascade of concussion.  This process confuses the brain, throwing off its ability to regulate, to transmit signals, and to send messages that control how we think and what we remember” (p. 6).  After a concussion, regardless of the severity, a parent needs to watch for those symptoms notifying teachers as well.

In my home state of Georgia, an end of course test is required in all grade levels and if a student does not pass in grades 3, 5 and 8 s/he is not allowed to move to the next grade level even if he has maintained an “A” average all year.  With high stakes testing, parents need the knowledge to understand the importance of notifying educators if his child has suffered any type of bump to the head.  Here is another example and although it depicts an older teenage soccer player, it is relevant to this discussion.  A personal friend could not spell bus for three days after a concussion on the soccer field a week before her state mandated high school graduation test.  Fortunately for her, one could say, her concussion caused her to black out momentarily just before halftime.  She kept playing but after five minutes at halftime, she could not remember her name and was sent via helicopter to the hospital.  She received a medical excuse so she did not have to take the graduation test until she had fully recovered. Since very few make it to the big leagues to play professional ball, academics should come first and even a slight concussion could cause havoc in the classroom especially during testing. You cannot expect an eight-year-old boy to explain to his teacher why he was not feeling “right”, could you?  The teacher would probably assume the child just wanted to go home to avoid taking the test.

That task to inform teachers and all other caregivers would be the responsibility of an informed and caring parent.  (3) Cantu and Hyman (2012) also write that players as young as five “suit up” for Pop Warner football through its Little Mite division which is a full-contact tackle league with approximately 16,000 players across the nation. Further they write, “A medical journal explaining the precise dangers of organized football to the brains of young children,” would have been included in their book, but the “cultural phenomenon is so new that it has yet to be studied”.  They add, “We simply cannot gauge the long-term effects for these little ones. That alone is reason to keep children so young off the gridiron” (Cantu & Hyman, 2012, p. 30).  Just because there is not decades of medical research does not mean parents, youth football coaches, and related organizations are off the hook.

In addition, here are some other very important facts that parents need to know as included in Chapter 7 of Concussions and our Kids.  Below are some of the “myths” Cantu and Hyman (2012) discuss in their book while providing specific patient examples. They explain that concussions can occur whether or not the player is knocked unconscious, and that helmets do not prevent concussions. They also clarify that a second or third concussion may or may not be more serious than preceding concussions. All concussions regardless of severity require rest and proper time to heal – especially in younger children. They remind readers that the assumption that boys suffer more concussions than girls is not always accurate (although logic states there would be more instances of concussions by boys in youth football as it is primarily a male sport – at least until there are a lot more little Sam Gordon’s on the horizon). There is no magic number of concussions that would result in a medical professional making the recommendation that a child should withdraw from sports.  It’s the educated/informed parent who should monitor and keep track of all injuries to a child’s head regardless of severity and is just one more reason why Cantu and Hyman believe in educating parents and coaches.  The emergency room doctor is not equipped to make that type of determination and neither is a coach.  Finally the most important “myth” they clarify is that a child who experiences a concussion that may or not be initially diagnosed as such may not experience symptoms immediately. They state, parents should “continue to be alert for another week” (Cantu & Hyman, 2012, p. 114). While the health and well-being of young athletes needs to be a collective effort by coaches, trainers, league officials and doctors, but ultimately falls primarily in the hands of the parent.

Notwithstanding the lack of medical research for young athletes and the lack of apparent disregard by youth football organizations, parents need to be further informed about multiple concussions and what could lie ahead.  In fact, Cantu and Hyman (2012) devote an entire chapter to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).  Their definition follows:

CTE is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people exposed over many years to repetitive brain trauma. That trauma includes concussions, of course, and thousands upon thousands of sub concussive blows that athletes absorb over a lifetime playing football.  The jolts to the brain can trigger a buildup of an abnormal for of protein called tau.  The process is similar to the one that takes place in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. (Cantu & Hyman, 2012, p. 90)

If the fear of CTE as explained above is not reason enough for parents to demand change for our youth who are engaging in football, here are nine reminders:  Nathan Stiles, Mike Borich, Owen Thomas, John Mackey, John Grimsley, Lou Creekmur, Ray Easterling, Dave Duerson, and Junior Seau (Fecke, 2013). These are names that many football enthusiasts will quickly recognize as all nine had varying levels of CTE when they died (Fecke, 2013). Although in most cases, these deaths occurred when the football player was an adult, it is imperative to note once again that a child’s brain is “gelatin” and helmets do not prevent concussions – thus full contact for youth football players must stop.  If impacts as adults can create CTE, imagine what multiple impacts can do to children?  Again, we do not know the answer to this question.  A child’s head does not reach its full size until about age fourteen – and even at age fourteen it is 90% of the size a head will be as an adult.

The assumption can be made that if adult football players do not realize or choose not to acknowledge what was happening to them, how can a mere child of five, ten or even fourteen know when the risks outweigh the rewards?  Sadly one day that five-year-old pee wee player may wind up with similar symptoms whether or not he plays football for decades or just a handful of years. Remember no medical research is available that shows the long term repercussions from hard hits, repeated falls, tackles, and head to head jolts when a child is just five to fourteen years of age.

What parent could count the number of times his fourteen-year-old football prodigy has hit his head in a ten-year span assuming he began his illustrious career at age four?  In reality given today’s fast-paced society, very few parents can attend every practice and every game. There has to be clear and honest communication to parents from those in charge (i.e., coaches, trainers, team moms, and referees) after all practices and games whenever there is even the slightest hint of a head injury to any young football player whether he is the star of the team or the worst on the field.  Hopefully, football is reaching a turning point.  Professional football would not suffer if educational warnings about the risks and rewards of playing full contact football were plastered across the sky (even if that was possible); but changes to all youth football leagues with regulations in place to prevent full contact for those football players ages four to fourteen could quite possibly save a life and one life is certainly worth saving.

There is a way to prevent a large majority of potential concussions in youth football from ever happening.  If NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s statement, “the game can be made safer while making football better,” is true at the professional level, then surely a similar yet even safer game plan can be put into place for youth football (The Miami Herald, 2013). It is time to begin protecting the youngest on the gridiron, and it seems most apparent informed parents hold the key to signal “game over” for full contact football.

Brittany Beaumont is a junior at Clemson University, majoring in Communication Studies with a minor in Psychology. She was raised in Atlanta, Georgia and is currently a midfielder for the Clemson Women’s Soccer team. She also is a member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, and is a Clemson Coalition representative for all student-athletes. After graduation, she looks forward to pursuing a career in Sports Management/Public Relations. You can follow her on Twitter @BrittBeaumont

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