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A Walking Contradiction: Texas High Schools, Football, and Concussions

Thousands of students mash helmets every weekend – at what cost?
Joseph Baucum, 12:00pm, Wed. Oct. 30, 2013
photo by Joseph Baucum
Members of Cedar Park's Varsity football team line up for the National Anthem

Sixteen-year-old Jacob Baran knew his brain was injured, though any memory of the hit is lost. His recollection is limited to remembering it occurred in the first quarter of the Anderson Trojans’ clash with the McCallum Knights in the first game of the 2013 season, one of many involving thousands of high school football players in Texas.

Having already sustained a concussion one year prior, the linebacker knew what to anticipate. He braced himself as nausea permeated his intestines; resigned himself to the dizzying fog enfolding his thoughts. With each passing second, as neuron after neuron refused to fire, his awareness evaporated into oblivion. Consequences be damned, there was no chance he was leaving the game. He dutifully finished the contest, taking hit after post-concussion hit in a 38-22 loss.

“I was in that mindset, like you know, we’ve been working really hard, and I don’t want to let them down, and I know they really need me, so I wanted to push through it,” Baran, a junior at Anderson, explained. “I think, for a lot of kids, that’s probably the downfall: staying in longer than you should.”

Baran is correct in this assumption of high school football players hiding traumatic brain injuries. His neurologist, Dr. Michael Reardon of Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas, contends daily with this reality of tough-it-out dispositions. Football players, of which approximately 168,000 played at the Texas high school level in 2012, deplore the horrors of succumbing to pain. They want to be Emmitt Smith with a separated shoulder, not Jay Cutler tapping out with a Super Bowl invite on the line. Concussions carry even worse repercussions. Practices must be sat out, playing time will get cut in half, and, worst of all, victory will be jeopardized.

“Basically, every single day that I see concussion patients, which is two or three days a week, I hear that story,” said Reardon, a 10-year veteran of neurology practice, on the cases of football-playing teenagers who continue subjecting themselves to hits after suffering a concussion. He estimates his clinic treats 225-250 teenagers from late August through the end of November for traumatic brain injuries stemming from participation in the sport, with this demographic comprising 75% of his clinic’s concussion referrals during this time frame.

It’s All In Your Head

High school football, synonymous with the utmost prestige in Texas, is also greatest in concussion incidence in high school sports, according to multiple studies. But the medical community remains divided on the rate of incidence due to the data deriving from identified concussions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports .47 injuries per 1,000 exposures (games and practices participated in), and a study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine increases the risk to .60 per 1,000 exposures.

Unidentified concussions, such as the one or two additional concussions Baran estimates he’s suffered along with his two diagnosed injuries, don’t make it into these studies, and the threat of the body receiving impacts while the brain is concussed looms.

Individuals with an incompletely myelinated central nervous system (the maturation of insulation cables in neurons) risk second impact syndrome if they endure any head or bodily impacts before a concussion has fully healed. Myelination can continue into the late 20s. A complete recovery is tantamount and requires abstaining from any mental or physical activity during portions of the process, which can be a week at minimum but can also take months. Yet a large number of Texas high schools – whose mission is to educate students largely through classroom enrichment – continue to zealously embellish the culture of a sport capable of leaving its participants brain-damaged or at the very least absent from significant class attendance.

An even more sobering reality: Regardless of each game employing multiple medical professionals, sideline monitors, and 20-50 replay cameras, the National Football League routinely bungles the identification and subsequent removal of concussed players from competition. Its Texas high school counterpart, the University Interscholastic League (UIL, the governing body for high school athletics within the state) requires no licensed medical professionals to be on the sidelines for high school football games despite evidence of youth athletes sustaining hits at the force of adults.

The UIL does require a concussion acknowledgement form to be signed by a parent or legal guardian before each football season; however, it’s conveniently not compulsory per UIL standards for parents and athletes to receive formal education on the ever-evolving research on the longterm effects of concussions.

“I tell parents to keep their eyes open,” suggested Dr. Hunt Batjer, Chair of Neurological Surgery at UT Southwestern in Dallas and co-chair of the NFL’s Head, Neck, and Spine Medical Committee. “They’re observers out there. They’re educated observers, and they know what their kids act like. If they see their kid take a blow and he or she is not right after that, and the team coach or the trainer doesn’t pick it up, go down there and grab your kid. Tell them what happened. Tell them what you saw and say, ‘He is out of the game.’”

But are parents educated observers? The categorical concussion awareness of parents, coaches, and trainers is dubious at best. It’s only one ingredient of the paradox of schools promoting football. Despite the mounting publicity on the dangers associated with the collision sport, the gridiron fidelity of football-crazed Texas, especially at the high school level, is undeterred.

“Cedar Park is proactive in taking care of those concussion things, and the helmet things that they wear on their heads,” said Cathy Neely, mother of Cedar Park Timberwolves offensive lineman Davis Geerts. “They’re very proactive about that, so that’s not a concern of mine.”

The soft-shell, protective feature alluded to by Neely is the Guardian Cap, a $55 add-on for helmets to reduce impact during practices. Its implementation is imperative for all players who practice under Joe Willis, head coach of defending the 4A Division II state champions.

“Remove all the unnecessary risks that you can,” Willis suggested. “That’s why we wear the Guardian Cap. That’s why we have a protective feature on the helmet.”

While the Cedar Park approach should be commended for its intention to forestall concussions, it’s still baffling that, in order to best ensure protecting the brains of student athletes, the team must wear a padded shell to protect themselves from their helmets, which, in themselves, are supposed to protect their collective heads. Not to mention that not every school district in the state is blessed with the affluence of Cedar Park. In light of recent cuts to state education funding, such spending measures would be grossly negligent on the part of administrators. Except, this already takes place.

The antiquated apportioning of funds for public schools employed by Texas restored $3.46 billion in a 2013 state legislative session, but it’s still $1.8 billion short of the $5.4 billion cut in a 2011 budget crisis per Texas Education Agency. Less funding means fewer learning resources in the classroom. It means more students per teacher, because employees must be cut. Consequently, it’s less attention an educator can devote to each pupil. Also worth noting: As the median salary for Texas teachers rests at $49,826 (per the Texas Tribune), high school football coaches enjoy a much more opulent remuneration – some to abundant degrees.

According to a recent article in the Atlantic, Premont Independent School District in south Texas reconciled their financial difficulties when threatened with district closure by simply canceling all sports for the 2012-13 academic year. The football team alone required $1,300 to fund each player, per Ripley’s assertions. Add in the costs of athletic gear, coaching stipends, busses for away games, and the savings grew exponentially. So did the academic performance with more time for students to devote to schoolwork, which is supposed to be the actual priority of a school’s existence. But for the other districts in need of monetary assistance, high school football will continue. Texas has been, and will continue to be, a state steeped in the putative virtues of the collision sport.

Any Given Sunday

If the immediate health of students’ brains and the fiscal needs of school districts weren’t enough, there are the lasting ramifications. Mary Ann Easterling comprehends the devastation of concussions better than most, having watched concussion-induced ailments extinguish her husband’s life. Ray Easterling’s eight-year career with the Atlanta Falcons unequivocally afforded many blessings; 20 years of mental torment was not one of them.

His eloquent sincerity devolved to tempestuous outbursts, leaving those he conversed with affronted by indignant rants. The former NFL safety’s self-respect eroded to humiliation as an accumulation of people doubted the legitimacy of his words. Memory loss, doddering hands, depression, and other curses of the neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy dissolved Easterling into an indistinguishable facsimile of the man he once was.

Reaching the nadir of his debilitation from the physical ailments and mental instability beget by the rigors of football and the mismanaged brain injuries the sport engendered, Easterling, a devoted husband and father, committed suicide in April 2012.

“Players must choose not to play through the dings and the stars,” his widow said of the cognitive destruction intrinsic to football at all levels. “Parents of high school football players and any other  sport where concussions occur must insist that coaches and trainers talk turkey when it comes to brain trauma. Winning the game at all costs cannot override a player's brain health.”

Nor can conjectural values.

Former NFL linebacker Scott Fujita recently confirmed in a New York Times essay what many non-football playing individuals already accept: While the values of overcoming adversity and teamwork can be learned through football, those values are not specifically isolated to being acquired through participation. George Visger, a member of the San Francisco 49ers 1981 Super Bowl XVI Champion team, concurs.

“That’s a crock of crap that the only way my kid is going to grow up to be a man and learn is if he’s got to play football,” said Visger, whose website, The Visger Group, provides information on traumatic brain injuries and promotes safety awareness. “Those are guys that are trying to live vicariously through their kids. You can learn these lessons, and like I said, I don’t know if the guys that really do well in this already have those values instilled in them from their parents. I know I did.”

Like the Easterlings, Visger knows the hard lessons of concussion mismanagement. He was one of the more than 4,600 former players and family members who sued the NFL for withholding information on the dangers linked to concussions – and who may have ultimately settled for a deal that will not actually help all who need it.

He owns no illusions concerning the nature of football, and recognizes how a billion dollar industry pushes propaganda to convince parents of youth football athletes that a sport predicated on unpredictable, violent collisions can be made safe through proper tackling and equipment advances – as if the act of tackling isn’t in and of itself dangerous, or the need for safety equipment doesn’t convey danger. He is realizes that without parents giving consent to allow minors to play an inherently brutal game, universities won’t have recruits to make millions from, and the NFL won’t have professionals to pull in similar profits. The feeder system will die. The cash flow will stop.

A Case of Relapse

Following his concussion against McCallum, Jacob Baran decided to hang up his cleats. He admits that with each subsequent concussion, his mental ceiling has progressively declined.

Still, the fabled Friday night lights will blaze on. Teenagers will pummel each other, and consenting adults will roar with approval, continuously exhorting their children to commit actions that would otherwise be abhorred had they happened in almost any other situation.

An identity will be maintained, a state will be validated, but the rewards will be unclear.

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