Stunning is one word that describes the issue of concussions in sports -- on many levels, from debilitating injuries to massive lawsuits. Head impacts from collisions with other athletes or other causes have come under intense scrutiny over the past few years as athletes sue professional and collegiate leagues for downplaying the issue.
High school sports have escaped this attention. Until now.
As Herald sports writer Jason Dill reported last week, the Manatee County school district lacks a policy on baseline concussion testing protocols. This failure to safeguard students, the district's primary mission next to education, must be rectified.
The evidence on this issue is overwhelming, witnessed time and time again not only on the playing field as athletes are carted off but in the depression, suicidal thoughts and neurodegenerative conditions that strike victims later in life.
As the federal Centers for Disease Control states, a concussion is a brain injury that alters brain functions, and most cases do not involve being knocked unconscious. Permanent brain damage can ensue.
A new study found high school football players are almost twice as likely to suffer a concussion as their collegiate counterparts. The Institute of Medicine study, funded by the National Football League, also discovered that concussive symptoms lasted weeks, months and even years among up to a fifth of injured players.
The study analyzed data on head trauma in a variety of high school sports while estimating football players sustained 11.2 concussions per 10,000 games and practices versus a collegiate player rate of 6.3.
But the report also cautioned that the figures are likely misleading because many concussions are not reported.
If that isn't stunning news to parents and players, then America's sports culture should be re-evaluated. The idea that the team, coach or school is more important than an individual's health is simply wrong -- but that is the culture that young athletes profess in refusing to report concussions, the institute found
Our priorities are out of whack with this kind of thinking -- especially the old-school idea that a player can just walk it off.
This is not to blame coaches for sending players back on the field after a very tough hit or collision with the ground. We do not doubt that coaching staffs lack that concern for the health of their players.
But strict protocols must be established to protect the health of high school athletes.
As lawsuits are now establishing, the penalty for ignoring the concussion issue can just as crippling as the injury.
Just this fall, the NFL agreed to pay $765 million for injuries and medical monitoring for past players who suffered concussions and other brain damage.
This next bit of news should send a signal to the Manatee County school district. A class-action lawsuit against the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the governing body for college sports, alleges the organization was negligent by failing to adopt a formal concussion policy until 2010. The lawsuit is currently in mediation.
A Fox Sports report this week cited NCAA injury figures that show there were more than 29,000 concussions reported in college sports from 2004 to 2009, mostly in football, and those athletes had a high risk of suffering a second concussion upon returning to competition within 10 days.
While the Florida High School Athletic Association strengthened rules regarding concussions, that applied to officials and did not expect game officials to perform any medical diagnosis.
The 2010-2011 rules change left overall medical policy responsibilities up to individual school districts. FHSAA guidelines are strict but districts could more strongly ensure the health and welfare of young athletes.
The Manatee County school district lacks a detailed policy that mandates baseline testing, and parents brought the issue up at last week's board meeting.
A policy had been on the board's agenda in the past, but the issue faded into the background in the aftermath of attention-grabbing budget and personnel problems. Now's the time to bring that back to the table.