By David Topham
Ingham County Chronicle staff writer
INGHAM COUNTY—There isn’t anything quite like the brain. It is the most complex and vital organ in the human body. That is why protecting it has become a main priority of the Michigan High School Athletic Association in the past two years.
Starting in 2010, the MHSAA launched a five-step protocol all high schools must follow during a contest in which an athlete is believed to have sustained a concussion. The protocol forces any athlete at risk of a concussion to come out of the game and be evaluated.
According to a well known brain injury lawyer, a concussion is a head injury caused by traumatic force, such as a blow to the head, which alters normal brain functions.
“Imagine the worst headache you’ve ever had and multiply it by a hundred,” said Ingham County resident Nathan Russell. Russell, 21, suffered two concussions when he played high school football.
The association’s new policy reflects a stricter regime being put in place to make an athlete’s safety the top priority. Head injuries are at the forefront. The rule regarding concussions states:
“Any athlete who exhibits signs, symptoms or behaviors consistent with a concussion (such as loss of consciousness, headache, dizziness, confusion, or balance problems) shall be immediately removed from the contest and shall not return to play until cleared by an appropriate health care professional.”
The problem is, every concussion is different and every athlete experiences symptoms differently. Common effects include headaches, sensitivity to light and memory problems.
“I know I didn’t have any problems remembering anything, but I did have to wear sunglasses for a few days because I was having trouble with lights,” said MSU junior Tom Longpre. Longpre suffered a concussion during his junior year of high school.
Symptoms can last from a few days up to several months. It is important that athletes do not return until they are properly healed, which is why the MHSAA is requiring written clearance from a licensed physician as part of its protocol.
Concussions have become a prominent issue in athletics in recent years due to a series of lawsuits filed against the National Football League. Many former players have accused the league of hiding the true dangers of repeated head injuries. According to an analysis of the situation by the Associated Press, over 3,300 former players have or are working to sue the NFL.
The NFL’s saga with concussions has brought about rule and protocol changes due to continued evidence linking head injuries and long-term brain damage.
In the most extreme cases, post-mortem autopsies on the brains of former players uncovered the presence of a disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
CTE deteriorates brain tissue and can result in memory loss, depression or progressive dementia.
Such findings have opened the eyes of coaches, players, parents and fans as the long-term health and safety of athletes has become an issue even at the high school level. According to Michigan State University athletic trainer Tracey Covassin, younger athletes take longer to recover and are more susceptible to severe effects from repeated head injuries.
To raise awareness the MHSAA has made efforts to educate coaches, parents and athletes, even making it mandatory for coaches to attend online sessions to learn how to detect and handle concussions more effectively.
“It is something that is talked about more now than ever,” said Haslett High School head football coach Charlie Otlewski. “It’s not just football either; concussions are an area of concern in all high school sports.”
This October, Gov. Rick Snyder signed new legislation that requires all Michigan youth sport coaches, employees and volunteers to participate in a concussion awareness program.
While spreading awareness can help the situation, concussions can never be prevented. They, like all injuries, are just another part of the game.
“As a parent, it really makes you worry,” said Lansing resident Rita Lesko, 56. “It makes you wonder if you should even let your children play sports.”
As athletics evolve and participants become bigger, stronger and faster, the MHSAA has made it clear that it is going to adapt to the changes. By continuing to raise public awareness and adopting new rules, its efforts to address concussions have created positive ripples within the athletic community.
While the crusade against concussions may just be getting started, the association has made it its priority to put the long-term health and safety of the state’s athletes in the greatest possible position.