Concussions and heat issues under careful watch

Concussions and heat issues under careful watch

Posted: Tuesday, April 9, 2013 10:09 pm

By KEVIN WEAKS
Press Sports
Headaches and heat.
Along with classification, those are the two most discussed issues in the TSSAA offices now.
As research continues to be gathered and injuries mount up, organizations that govern football at all levels across the nation are becoming more aware of the dangers of concussions and heat-related injuries.
Heat is an issue every year. Concussions, meanwhile, have become the hot topic in recent years as revelations of professional and collegiate athletes not only having suffered numerous such injuries throughout their careers but also apparently felt the long-term affects of those injuries.
The TSSAA, according to assistant director Matt Gillespie, is trying to be proactive in preventing injuries and then ensuring the recovery and safety of a player before allowing him to return to action. There are online courses available that teach coaches and educators about concussion safety, prevention and rehabilitation. Testing has been developed to determine if a player is fit to return from a head injury. And, the National Federation of High Schools, which held its annual convention in Nashville this summer, discussed concussions at great length.
“We have one of the toughest concussion policies around, in terms of clearing people to play, and we’re proud of that,” Gillespie said. “One of the things we’ve added to our policy is having a neuropsychologist with clinical training as people added to the list of who can clear a player to play. That was brought to our attention by people who have worked on concussion training and baseline testing with the (Nashville) Predators, Vanderbilt and the Tennessee Titans. It was brought to our attention by somebody who knows what they’re talking about. We’re not doctors or experts, so we have to rely on those people to help with input.”
There is, however, only so much the state’s high school athletic governing body can do before its member schools have to start paying the bill.
Baseline testing is still somewhat in the developmental stage but is being used to determine the status of concussion victims in regard to their ability to return to the field.
Some schools in Tenne-ssee are already using some form of baseline testing. Christ Presbyterian in Nashville, for instance, uses the Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing — known as imPACT. It tests several functions, such as attention span, working memory and reaction time.
Statewide implementation of such tests, however, is not on the horizon for TSSAA member schools.
“It’s not something we see being implemented statewide in the near future because there’s a significant cost involved that schools would incur,” TSSAA assistant director Mark Reeves explained. “Plus, we don’t know if all our schools would have access to baseline testing. We’re trying get more information on what schools have access to that material, and from a medical standpoint, if there is one test better than another. We just want to pass on information. We’re not aware of any states that require baseline testing because of the same reasons. The imPACT test is the one most people know about, but we don’t know which one is the best or is most reasonable in terms of cost.”
The states, Gillespie said, have a stringent concussion policy for all athletes in its jurisdiction. The policy has been in place since the 2010-11 year and was designed after input from several other state organizations, including neighboring North Carolina.
Under TSSAA policy, athletes showing symptoms of concussions are removed from practice or competition, and a referee can remove a player if he or she suspects that player has suffered a concussion. Each school’s health care provider can officially diagnose a concussion, and only a medical doctor, osteopathic physician or clinical neuropsychologist with concussion training can clear an athlete to return to action.
Online concussion courses provided by the NFHS are done so in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There is also new technology being developed in the area of a player’s equipment. Football helmets are becoming more protective and several variations are in use at all levels today.
“It’s always improving,” Gillespie said. “With technology, whether it’s padding or the design of the helmet, things are much better now than they were not only 25 years ago but even five years ago.”
The rules of the game are also changing to make playing safer. The definition of a proper tackle is emphasized, and certain types of tackles have been outlawed.
That, however, has brought on a backlash of sorts from fans, coaches and even players about the quality of the game suffering. Gillespie understands those concerns but says safety comes first.
“Obviously, you don’t want to sacrifice the integrity of the game, but I feel that anybody who is arguing something that doesn’t help the safety of the kids is going down the wrong road,” Gillespie said. “When you talk about sacrificing the integrity of the game or sacrificing a kid’s life, which one are you going to choose? I think the answer there is a simple one. Safety has to be the top priority.”
Safety is also the top priority with regard to the heat rules.
TSSAA-member institutions have strict guidelines for working out under certain heat index temperatures. And, with heat-related deaths and other health problems reported every year, coaches and administrators are advised to adhere to the policy.
“For us, 105 degrees is that magic number in the policy,” Gillespie said. “Anything 105 or higher, you have to shut down everything. That’s what has been given to us from medical experts. When you get at 105, you’re getting into dangerous territory. We have variations based on the heat index. Up to 104, for instance, we have regulations on how many water breaks and things like that. Now, there are coaches who want to push the envelope and will tell you that they have to get players acclimated to the heat. But, when you practice in 108 degrees at noon, how acclimated are you really getting a kid to play at 7 o’clock on a Friday night? So, there are arguments on both sides, but our top priority is on the safety of the kids.”
Gillespie indicated that information and reminders sent out to schools about the heat policy doesn’t increase based on the type of summer the state is have. This summer has been hotter and more humid than usual, with temperatures at or near the 100-mark almost every day.
Hot summers and the earlier starts to season bring the heat policy under the spotlight each year. Teams now practice early in the morning or late in the evening to avoid the hottest times of the day and, every year, games and scrimmages are delayed or stopped because the heat index reaches 105.
With prep sports becoming more popular on national television, the heat becomes the most important aspect of the game.
Tennessee will be under the national spotlight this year as Alcoa and Maryville will play on ESPN noon Aug. 26 at Maryville.
“The talks for TV games don’t go through us,” Gillespie said. “They go between those schools and whatever network is involved. But, we have a heat policy in effect, and it will apply to those games.”
 Those officials will know that. You hope it won’t become a factor, but it will be in effect.”

Published in The Press 8.14.12

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