By Stephen Brooks
Williamston Post staff writer
For generations, youth sports have been one of America’s most celebrated traditions.
Seen as vital components to a young person’s fitness, sports can serve as laboratories for social and cognitive skills, as well.
A new era is being ushered in where injury prevention — especially for concussions and other head injuries — takes precedent over adages such as “boys will be boys” and mindsets that welcome a few bumps and bruises.
Concussions and head injuries are being looked at with increasing intensity today and youth sports programs are under pressure to ensure the best safety practices.
Williamston and its schools are taking notice and working to build on established measures to protect its athletes from concussions.
The national discussion on concussions has shot to the forefront of the sports world in recent years as leagues across the nation revise safety policies while increasing awareness and education programs in response to public outcry about the injury risks athletes face.
Before the 2010-11 school year, the Michigan High School Athletic Association instituted a revision of its concussion policy across all sports.
It created a statewide policy that states any athlete exhibiting signs of a concussion must be removed from competition and cannot return until they are cleared by a medical professional, MHSAA Communications Director John Johnson said.
“Our games, quite frankly, are safer than they’ve ever been before,” Johnson said.
“Some of the drama that’s been played out, specifically in the NFL, really makes life difficult for other levels of sport. We have to get the word out there that our coaches are trained better than ever before, that the equipment is better and that we’re constantly looking at the things we can do to make these games safer.”
There currently is a class-action lawsuit against the NFL by former players claiming the league withheld important information about the long-term effects of brain trauma.
The old days
The changes in 2010 were a result of the 2009 decision by the National Federation of State High School Associations to make each state establish a protocol for the removal and return of players with concussions, Johnson said.
Before the Michigan revisions, concussion policies were handled like any other injury, Johnson said, resulting in different practices from school to school.
In October 2012, Gov. Rick Snyder signed similar legislation for youth-level sports programs not covered under high school regulations.
Williamston High School Athletic Director Mike Freeman credits the state association for proactive measures that include training for coaches, players and parents. He said although football garners most of the attention, concussions occur in all sports and improved equipment has helped lower the risk of head injuries across the board.
“Back in the day, say back in the ‘70s and ‘80s when I played, there was concussions, you just shook it off,” Freeman said. “So I think national attention has brought that to light — which is good. Nobody wants anybody to get their bell rung and be messed up for the rest of their life or potentially die.”
Policies and equipment aren’t the only things evolving. Attitudes and stigmas surrounding concussions are as well. Freeman likened it to archaic theories about how drinking water during practices was seen as a sign of weakness years ago.
All parties are more in touch with the risks of sports today and generally are more reactive when injuries occur said Steve Kersten, varsity football coach at WHS and Williamston Youth Football committee member.
“The awareness is there, and now the action is there,” Kersten said. “We don’t screw around with it anymore like we used to. We used to say ‘Ah, you doing OK?’ ‘I’m OK.’ ‘Get back in there.’ You know what I mean? Kids talk about concussions all the time now.”
A new era
One of the steps WHS is taking in athlete safety is ImPACT testing, which few other schools in the area use, said Matt Zeramski, the school’s athletic trainer.
ImPACT testing is used prior to the season on football players and certain other athletes to get a baseline reading on a person’s cognitive abilities, he said.
“It’s testing memory, recognition of time, problem-solving, that kind of thing,” Zeramski said. “Then if there is a head injury, then we can go back and re-test. And that isn’t necessarily in itself just to clear people, but it’s just another tool for the doctor to look at.”
Athletes also can sustain minor concussions or head injuries throughout a game that don’t get properly diagnosed or even recognized, Zeramski said.
This was the case for Isaak Jump, a senior at WHS, who said he took a couple blows during his junior football season that reminded him of a serious concussion he had the year prior.
“I couldn’t see for a little bit. I got up and I looked at the lights and it was just kind of seeing like double vision a little bit,” Jump said of his first major concussion. He couldn’t remember his class schedule when asked by the trainer.
“Everything was just so blurry, you can’t comprehend anything.”
Earlier this spring, the Williamston Youth Football program held a dodgeball tournament fundraiser to buy safer helmets. Steve Berg, a father with two sons in the program, wrote in an email that between equipment and travel expenses it can cost up to $500 per player for a season.
Kersten said the program is striving to have its own full set of helmets for its players, who can start as young as third grade.
“Given the other costs, if a parent had limited funds to buy a helmet, they may cut corners and pick up something that is out of date and not safe,” Berg said. “So, providing helmets at no cost is doubly effective.”
Jump said he noticed an increased emphasis on concussion safety in Williamston in the past two years. He has played football in a Hornets uniform since he was in third grade and sustained two official concussions that were documented throughout his playing career, he said.
“I’d say it definitely altered the way I played my last year, and you definitely keep it in the back of your mind, too,” Jump said.
The abundance of attention on the matter, though, concerns some about the future of sports, primarily football, and whether the integrity of the games will withstand the changing ideology.
As a varsity football coach and parent of a youth football player, Kersten sees both sides of the coin.
He said his son enjoyed playing flag football as a fifth-grader more than tackle football on the sixth-grade team. That’s one possible trend that Kersten believes could become popular — parents withholding their children from tackle football until the high school level.
The recent attention on concussions led to more parents delaying their children’s football careers or not allowing them to play at all Kersten said.
“There’s absolutely caution,” Kersten said. “There’s a difference in numbers. Kids aren’t out for football. … In the past it was like everybody came out, we had huge numbers. Now it’s not, and I think a big part of it is the physicality of the game, you know, concussions and other possible injuries.”
Many players have so much passion for the sport that they are willing to overlook potential injury, Jump said. He said although his peers are more aware and educated about head injuries, it doesn’t deter their willingness to play.
“I love the game. I wouldn’t want to play any other sport,” Jump said.
As experts in the medical field continue researching the effects of concussions on the brain, it’s up to coaches to become more active in reducing injuries as well, Kersten said. It becomes a catch-22 situation in football but in the end requires creative thinking and planning in practices by coaches, Kersten said.
“Are there going to be concussions? There are. It’s part of the game,” Kersten said.
“… That whole idea of getting knocked down and having to get back up, I think it’s a big part of football and it’s very important. Over the next 10 years it will be very interesting to see what that looks like.”
New rules and policies trickle down from the professional ranks, and more changes are sure to come within the next few years. Williamston is a community that is conscious of the discussion surrounding youth sport safety, and is working to stay on the cutting edge as technology and information evolves.
“We’re stepping up and we’re going to do a little bit of pounding of the drum to let folks know — people who have been scared by stuff that they’ve read lately — that school sports in general, and football in particular, are safe activities,” Johnson said.
“They’re popular activities and they will continue to be so.”