Jan 29, 2015
H.S. Athlete Death Rate Rises

abbyfunk-head.jpgBy Abigail Funk

Are more high school athletes playing through pain or ignoring the signs and symptoms of a possible concussion? Or are they just plain playing “harder” than in the past? Whatever the reasons, there is no avoiding the fact that more high school student-athletes have died from and suffered catastrophic injuries already this school year than in the past several years combined.

Three North Carolina high school football players have died suddenly since mid-August–two from what appear to be brain injuries suffered during play (the third cause of death is still unknown). In September, a Massachusetts high school football player died shortly after being hit in the chest during a scrimmage. The New York Times reported in early October that a j.v. football player in New Jersey was in critical condition after suffering a brain injury during a game, and three days later ran another article reporting his death.

And the list goes on. Concern seems to have taken hold, however, and several groups are reacting to the surprising rates. The NFHS Sports Medicine Committee held its fall meeting in early October, when members received a catastrophic injury update. NFHS Assistant Director Bob Colgate says the number of football deaths reported to the NFHS so far this school year is eight.

“Our numbers right now mirror what we had at the end of last football season, and we’re still about two months away from concluding high school football across the country,” he says. “Is it alarming? Yes. When we see the jump we’ve seen, we’re scratching our heads, too.”

Colgate says there may be several reasons for the spike in injuries, including better reporting of catastrophic injuries by member schools. “We’ve asked, ‘Is this better reporting or just a bad start to the school year?'” he says. “Unfortunately, we’ve seen a higher incidence of cardiac deaths over the past few years, and while some of those are being picked up on in family history screenings, others aren’t, and there’s no way to tell when an athlete may collapse from a heart problem not related to his or her sport.”

The NFHS plans to release a new version of its sports medicine handbook this month, and it will include updated concussion guidelines and preseason practice guidelines. But the NFHS can only advise its member associations–it cannot implement required policies and procedures to be followed like its college counterpart, the NCAA.

So while the NFHS will continue to discuss the matter, smaller-scale precautions are being taken. For instance, a concussion policy will be developed at Montclair (N.J.) High School where a junior football player died last month after sustaining a head injury during a game and being cleared to return to play.

“We want everyone at the school to know what the policy is and be on the same page,” Montclair Athletic Director John Porcelli told The New York Times. “No matter what sport, we want to have a policy in place.”

State officials in North Carolina are taking things into their own hands, too. The North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) Sports Medicine Committee held an emergency meeting in early October, where members heard from concussion research expert Kevin Guskiewicz, PhD, Chairman of the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at the University of North Carolina. Guskiewicz stressed the importance of having licensed athletic trainers on hand.

“This is a public health issue,” Guskiewicz told The News & Observer. “We need to say the safety and health of our high school athletes is a priority … The key is to have a person on the scene who is trained to recognize the symptoms and to take the right actions.”

That person, says Guskiewicz, is a certified athletic trainer. Guskiewicz even went so far as to say that schools without athletic trainers on staff shouldn’t be allowed to field football teams. Changes the NCHSAA implemented include requiring each school to have an emergency action plan in place and student-athletes who display any signs or symptoms of a concussion must have a doctor’s written permission before being able to return to practice or games.

The NFHS works with Fred Mueller, Director of the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina, to compile accurate and up-to-date data on student-athlete safety. Mueller is particularly concerned with what is traditionally seen as a “tough-guy” routine in high school football.

“I think football in some cases has a different mindset than other sports that if you’re injured, you play tough, and I think that’s a mindset that you’re talking about that you have to change,” Mueller told Raleigh, N.C. TV station ABC 11. “And a coach has to tell his kids that it’s okay for you come up to me and say, ‘I’ve got a headache,’ or ‘I don’t feel good today,’ or ‘I’m nauseous'” without being called weak or not being thought of as tough by his teammates. I think football needs to change that way.”

For more information on student-athlete safety, and to stay updated on this topic, visit these Web pages:
NFHS Sports Medicine Information
National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research.

Abigail Funk is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.

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