In school football programs, concerns about concussions mount

Alarming news about head injuries in football may have some parents thinking twice about allowing a child to suit up as school football-camp programs approach this summer. But a 16-year-old junior at Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, who has suffered multiple concussions, is one of the large number of players who maintain that the risks are overblown.

Justin Paniagua has suffered three concussions in his football career. He said he, along with three other teammates, received a concussion during the 2013 football season. However, Paniagua said he never thinks twice about the potential risks in the future from concussions.

“There is always a chance of long-term effects happening to me, but the chances are slim and not much worse than other sports,” he said. “I believe the health risks are outweighed by the benefits — socially, mentally and physically.”

Still, schools are cognizant of the potential risks, and many take precautions. At Salpointe Catholic High School in Tucson, for example, players are given baseline brain scans before the start of the season. Increasingly, schools around the country require the same, and medical services such as Clearedtoplay.org are promoting such tests.

According to researchers at Boston University, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic sub-concussive hits to the head. CTE results in a progressive decline of memory and cognition, and may include effects such as depression, suicidal behavior, poor impulse control, aggressiveness, Parkinsonism, and, eventually dementia, according to those researchers. Sports Illustrated ran a special report on the issue.

Even though Paniagua said he is not worried about suffering some of these effects, he acknowledges that others are.

“I’ve been surrounded by football for a long time and I’m comfortable with it, whereas someone who has never played before may hear about the concussion risks and choose not to try out,” he said. “Parents may not let their kids ever try out for football because they’re scared of the dangers.”

Michael Sarabia, a freshman football coach at Salpointe Catholic High, thinks concussions will have a negative effect on high school football in the future.

“Concussions are a major part of football these days,” he said: “Five years ago, 75-80 freshman would come out for the team. Over the past couple of years, our numbers have been declining with lots of parents saying ‘my kid will never play football.’”

–UPDATE: Even in school-football-crazed Texas, concern is mounting.

Richard Sanchez, the athletic director of the Sunnyside Unified School District, disagrees. Sanchez said he hasn’t seen any fallout from the high schools in the district at all.

“Obviously there are problems with concussions,” he said. “But I haven’t heard of any parents pulling their kids out because of that.”

The district’s assistant superintendent, Bernie Cohn, suggested that other sports might be more harmful than football, in fact.

“Do you know that more kids have gotten concussions from bicycles than from football?” he said.

Sarabia said he thinks the parents of kids who don’t play much on the team will be the first to drop. “They might think ‘my kid is not playing that much anyway, he’s not an all-star and his best sport is basketball,’” he said. “Why would he take the risk?”

However, Sarabia said Salpointe takes concussions very seriously. Players take brain tests at the beginning of every season, so if they get hit hard in the head, players are re-tested.

“We do a baseline test of you,” he said. “It’s a brain test on the computer. Any time you get your bell rung now, we take you out and ask you certain questions,” Sarabia said. If students show even a slight sign of a concussion after the initial test, they will be taken to the trainer for further analysis, he said.

Helmet-to-helmet contact isn’t the only thing that leads to concussions, however. Sarabia said most concussions come from the whiplash a player gets from hitting the ground.

“Think about Tucson, Arizona — our grass is often like a concrete floor. If you get tackled and your head goes back, even if the tackle isn’t bad you can get a concussion because the ground is so hard,” he said.

Concerns about concussions taking away players from programs are heard nationally, of course. Ryan Haines, 24, who coaches wide receivers and defensive backs at Oak Park High School in California, also foresees trouble getting kids to play high school football in the future due to concerns about concussions.

“It’s going to take a big hit,” he said. “The game is getting too violent and kids are getting bigger, faster and stronger with all the training. It will affect the number of athletes who play.”

Haines said their team lost one player due to brain issues from hitting too much. “He couldn’t play senior year,” he said. “He was a very good linebacker and running back too.”

Even the president has expressed concerns. In an interview with The New Republic magazine, Barack Obama also would not want his child to play football. “I’m a big football fan but I have to tell you, if I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football,” he said. “And I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence.”

Sarabia, who has had multiple conversations with parents who are on the fence about letting their child play, gives them advice. “I would just say to them it’s a family decision,” he said. “We are going to try to take the best care we can of the kid when he’s out there. But, if their concerns are outweighing the camaraderie that they get on the field, then it’s their decision.”

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