PLAYING IT SAFER
Slightly more than a year has passed since two Southern California high school athletes died from head injuries sustained on the football field.
During the off-season, there was much discussion of the issue and at least one instance of significant research into brain trauma.
But athletic administrators insist no sweeping rule change, no improvement in equipment could eliminate such injuries from football. As one administrator quipped: “We’re passing a rule that you can’t hit anybody too hard.”
So, with a new season under way, the concern over head-impact injuries is evident in subtler ways.
At a high school in the Antelope Valley, players are taught to recognize the symptoms of a concussion so they can keep an eye on one another in the huddle.
At a Los Angeles television studio, school district officials taped a half-hour program that included a promise to notify parents quickly if their children are hurt during practice or games.
Coaches say they are more vigilant.
“When we pat backs and shake hands after that game, we’ll have a tendency to look into the players’ eyes,” said Bob Francola, Granada Hills Kennedy High coach. “We want to see if they’re looking woozy.”
The study of head-impact injuries is relatively new, and there is much to learn. At the Institute for Preventive Sports Medicine in Ann Arbor, Mich., Dr. David Janda offers a layman’s description:
“Put a piece of Saran wrap over a bowl of Jell-O,” he said. “That Jell-O is your brain. Now shake the bowl pretty vigorously. You see the bits of jello stuck to the sides of the bowl and the Saran wrap? That’s the bruising that occurs, the tearing of the nerve tissue. That’s how folks get injured.”
These injuries have been a prominent topic in professional football for years, with players such as Merril Hoge of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Al Toon of the New York Jets forced to retire because of lingering effects.
In regard to high school football, the issue came to the forefront in Southern California last fall.
Reseda running back Eric Hoggatt died in his sleep after a Sept. 12 game at Chatsworth. The 18-year-old senior did not absorb any unusually hard hits but was tackled a dozen or more times during the game.
The Los Angeles County coroner’s office determined he suffered from a buildup of blood inside the skull, apparently the result of accumulated blows.
One week later, Coronado quarterback Adrian Taufaasau was knocked unconscious against Costa Mesa and died of severe head and neck trauma.
This fall, 1.5 million youngsters will take the field for teams ranging from Pop Warner to high school varsity, Janda said. He estimates 600,000 of them will be injured. According to various forecasts, 100,000 or more of those youngsters will suffer head-impact injuries.
Last March, the journal of the American Academy of Neurology published a report suggesting schools adopt uniform guidelines on how to assess and respond to concussions. Athletic administrators nationwide expressed interest in these recommendations.
But the National Federation of State High School Assns. which issues safety guidelines, has chosen not to relay the recommendations to member schools until its medical advisory board convenes for an annual meeting in October.
“It’s not that we’re insensitive to what is taking place,” said Jerry Diehl, the association’s assistant director. “But we don’t want to make the situation worse by having a knee-jerk reaction. [We] want to make sure that the information that comes out of this office is accurate and complete.”
Closer to home, City Section Commissioner Barbara Fiege said she has received some information about the report and that the Los Angeles Unified School District will be pursuing a partnership with Kaiser-Permanente “so that available information can be communicated to school district personnel and other health staff who have contact with sports injuries.” The Southern Section distributed injury-care guidelines this year from both the National Athletic Trainers Assn. and Daniel Freeman Hospital to its member schools.
Experts say the safety of young players continues to depend on a fragile cooperation among coaches, parents and the players.
Most schools have volunteer doctors on the sidelines during games, but few can afford full-time trainers. It often falls on the coaches to make rudimentary diagnoses.
The rules mandate that any player knocked unconscious may not return to the field without authorization from a doctor. But coaches are left to use their discretion in less severe incidents.
The neurology academy’s guidelines identify three grades of concussions ranging from temporary confusion to loss of consciousness. Even with the least severe grade, the academy recommends the player be removed from the field and examined every five minutes until he is symptom-free.
At Chatsworth last year, Hoggatt came out of the game in the fourth quarter and--according to some accounts--complained of dizziness and numbness. After the game, he was placed on a bus for home.
His parents are suing the Los Angeles Unified School District, claiming they should have been informed of his injury.
In cases of a suspected concussion, parents are often instructed to check on their child every few hours during the night, doctors said.
On a television show that aired from Sept. 1 through Sept. 15 on KLCS, school district officials made such notification and discussed other safety issues. A videotape of the show is available at all district schools.
Yet neither the City nor the Southern Section has standardized procedures for notifying parents about injuries.
Added Fiege: “We’re leaving it up to the individual schools to determine the best way to do that.”
Experts recommend parents take matters into their own hands by attending games and even some practices.
If a youngster is hurt, he needs to seek the proper medical attention.
“Make sure they go to a doctor who is trained in sports medicine,” said Dr. Clarence Shields, former orthopedist for the Los Angeles Rams. Going to a general practitioner, he said, “is like someone asking me to deliver a baby. Even though I’m a doctor, I wouldn’t be very good at it.”
Shields heads a volunteer program that provides full-time trainers at Crenshaw and Dorsey high schools. He would like to see the program expanded to every campus in Southern California.
“You can’t prevent every injury, but there is a certain level of safety,” he said. “People are beginning to see the needs.”