High school football players are prone to concussion-causing collisions, but often unwilling to prioritize
their safety over playing time [Credit: Herald Post, flickr.com, remixed by Shelley DuBois].
In September 2008, the SLI joined Boston University’s new Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. Now the two organizations work together to collect the brains of athletes who have died, in some cases due to chronic head injuries.
Families of ex-football players have donated most of the brains in the collection. Autopsies revealed that these brains are pockmarked with globs of a toxic protein usually only seen in the brains of deceased elderly patients who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Most SLI brains come from athletes who died in their 40s and 50s—strikingly young for such a significant build up.
The donations are critical, said Dr. Ann McKee, a neurologist at Boston University’s new center. “The world at large does not understand what trauma does to the brain,” she said. “Especially in the youth brain, it can have disastrous consequences.” The psychological aftermath of a concussion can remain hidden for years, she added, and the only way to link such delayed symptoms to chronic brain damage is through autopsies.
Athletes can prevent these long- and short-term consequences. The SLI education program imparts a simple message: young athletes should tell coaches if their ears ring, or they feel dizzy, disoriented or nauseous. Coaches should be on alert for these symptoms, and pull any possibly concussed kid out of a game until a qualified athletic trainer can clear him.
Before players can protect themselves, however, they have to know what a concussion is, and what to do if they have one. In 49 states, no one on the football field, including trainers and coaches, is legally required to be able to identify a concussion.
The only exception is Texas. A 2007 bill requires every Texas athlete and school employee involved with youth athletics to complete head injury and dehydration training. The bill, called “Will’s Bill,” is named after Will Benson, a high school football player from Austin who died in 2002 from a second-impact concussion during a game. His father Dick Benson lobbied the state legislature furiously for five years before the bill finally passed. “I’ve got to tell you that, unfortunately, sometimes state policy doesn’t occur until a child dies,” said State Senator Leticia Van de Putte, a San Antonio pharmacist who helped push the bill through.
When she spoke to coaches, she explained how the legislation would empower them. “I said, ‘Look, when my brothers were playing football, they thought you were a wimp if you asked for water. Now we know that athletes compete better when they’ve got the proper hydration.’ A lot of it is dispelling the old mentality.”
And nobody wants the athletes to play better more than the athletes. Ahmad Ahmed sat out his junior season at Brooklyn Tech High School. He’ll probably captain the team next year, equipped with a special shock-absorbent helmet and hard-earned wisdom. His teammates understand the importance of checking with their coach after every hit to the head, he said, “They all learned that from me.”
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