Susan Bush was troubled.
Her son, Sam, plays left tackle for Newport Harbor High's football team. She had read and heard of the dangers from concussions and felt as a parent she had a responsibility to safeguard her son's health.
She mentioned her concerns to her husband, Blaine, who is president of the Newport Harbor Football Booster Club, and he too felt frustrated at the lack of protection for their son and other athletes. He ran into a fellow athletic parent, Bill Lewis, who mentioned a process he was aware of called, "baseline testing."
They agreed that it should be instituted by the football team and they contacted imPACT, which is run by a friend of mine, Dr. Mark Lovell, their CEO who has been a seminal figure in the fight to reshape the treatment protocol for this injury.
They ran the possibility by Principal Michael Vossen, Athletic Director Mike Zimmerman, and Coach Jeff Brinkley and found them to be supportive. Very shortly, all of the players will be tested on campus. Blaine is on a mission to share what he has learned with other parents at local high schools.
I have been haunted by the spectre of concussion consequences for 35 years. It is the only injury that impacts consciousness, memory and what it means to be human. As I've written in this space before, we all know that sports like football take a toll on every joint in the body. We know that anyone who plays football long enough will have damage to their knees, back and shoulders. But it is one thing to feel pain while leaning over to pick up a child at age 35, it is another not to be able to recognize that child.
And I was frightened by injuries to NFL players like Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Warren Moon, Drew Bledsoe andBen Roethlisberger.
I have called concussion "an undiagnosed health epidemic" and a "ticking time bomb" because the damage is so often overlooked and the symptoms may not show up for years. I began holding seminars in Newport Beach in the 90s by inviting neurologists, helmet and playing surface experts, and players and parents to participate in "white papers" suggesting change. The brain is the last frontier of medical research. It wasn't until the last five years, when I was involved in three more seminars, that research was conducted that showed that three was the magic number. And that premature senility, dementia, Parkinson's Disease, Alzheimer's Disease and elevated rates of depression could be directly tied to multiple blows to the head.
We pushed the NFL to take action to warn players of the danger and utilize methods of prevention and treatment that seriously addressed the problem. Players who have been hit in the head are not the best judges of their own impairment. Under the leadership of new Commissioner Roger Goodell, the NFL started to tear down the Berlin Wall of denial that surrounded the impact of multiple concussions. The NFL instituted a "whistle blowers" edict asking players to report when other players seemed to functioning at subpar levels on the field. They also mandated baseline testing for all players, as many other professional leagues are now doing.
Although the NFL is the focus for most concussion news, this injury occurs in a variety of sports, at the professional, collegiate and high-school levels. The consequences are most devastating for younger athletes. Concussions occur in AYSO and club soccer, Little League and Pony League baseball, basketball, water polo, field hockey and skateboarding. The adolescent brain is still developing and the first role of these athletes is to be students with academic studies. It takes significantly more time for the younger brain to recover from symptoms like dizziness, headache, nausea, impaired vision. And all athletes in collision sports tend to be in a state of denial about their short and long-term health. They are so anxious to be part of a team and compete that they will put themselves at risk and neglect their symptoms. This is why the role of parents like the Bushes is so vital.
Parents and families need to protect their precious children who can't see life beyond the next play.
Dr. Mark Lovell, longtime neurologist at the University of Pittsburgh Sports Medicine clinic, knew the pressure on players, coaches and trainers to rush athletes back onto the field of play after suffering concussions. The state of the diagnostic art was embryonic, with players being asked how many fingers were held up in front of their face.
Dr. Lovell developed an objective way of judging impairment following hits to the head, and a protocol regarding return to play. It is a simple cognitive test which takes less than 30 minutes.
A player is tested before he goes out on the field of play and then tested again after a suspected concussion. This gives the health professional a way of knowing how severe the impact has been. Then players must prove they are asymptomatic at rest, on an Exercycle and at practice before being allowed to play again. This prevents "second concussion syndrome" in which an athlete still struggling with concussion symptoms enters the field of play. His or her reflexes and coordination are compromised and they get hit in the head again. It takes less force to produce another concussion and two in close temporal proximity to produce what is referred to as a perfect neurological storm.
This is why I went to the State Superintendent of Instruction in California and the CIF medical community to advocate baseline testing for all high school athletes. Expense was a problem for the less affluent students and Wells Fargo stepped forward to make testing available for as little as five dollars per student.
People tell me I can't save the world, but we can certainly insure that every high school in this area mandates baseline testing. As the old United Negro College Fund ad stated, "The mind is a terrible thing to waste."
Newport Harbor parents insisted on cardiac screening for their student athletes. And great credit should go to those local parents who are insisting on an elevated standard of care provided by baseline testing.
LEIGH STEINBERG is a renowned sports agent, author, advocate, speaker and humanitarian. His column appears weekly. Follow Leigh on Twitter @steinbergsports or blog.steinbergsports.com.