Concussions in football is a crisis that hits close to home for San Diegans. Any discussion of it nationwide usually includes Junior Seau, the former Chargers player who suffered from a degenerative brain disease when he committed suicide that wasn’t discovered until after his death.

But as more horror stories emerge — whether player suicide or long-term debilitation — football seems to be as popular as ever. “Even with mounting evidence that the sport poses both immediate and long-term risks, and can muddle an athlete’s brain years after the final whistle sounds, football’s mix of brutality and grace captures regional pride, young manhood, school spirit,” Mario Koran wrote this week.

Nationally, participation in football among high-school students was up at the start of the fall season. A cluster of  coaches at San Diego Unified schools, however, reported their rosters were shrinking. The U-T spoke to coaches at Patrick Henry, Serra and Scripps Ranch high schools, and each said he’d lost players “because of parents’ concerns for the safety of the sport. They’ve lost others who suffered a concussion and out of an abundance of caution were advised by a doctor not to play anymore.”

That “abundance of caution” could be because we still don’t know much about the long-term effects of football-related concussions. But efforts at the state level and in individual schools around the region seek to cut down on early trauma in youth programs.

The efforts are in line with recommendations cited in an L.A. Times story earlier this year. Here’s Dr. Jeffrey Bazarian, an emergency physician at the University of Rochester Medical Center:

“We really need to know what these players look like 10 to 15 years from now, and we have to do the hard work of knowing what the threshold is, in terms of hits to the head, for hippocampal damage.” Doing that, he suggested, could guide parents and coaches in limiting the duration or frequency of games, scrimmages or practices in which contact is made, or to recognize a blow to the head short of concussion that should trigger a recovery period for an athlete.

Changes From Up Top

• A new state law took effect at the start of 2015 that limits the amount of time middle-school and high-school students can participate in full-contact football drills to 90 minutes, twice a week. The U-T further boiled down AB 2127: “The law also bans full-contact practice during the off-season and requires the California Interscholastic Federation to create a protocol for an athlete who suffers a concussion.”

That didn’t quite cut it for state Sen. Joel Anderson (R-San Diego). Anderson, according to the L.A. Times:

… voted against the new rules, saying the legislature should not be telling local officials how much time should be devoted to full-contact practices. ‘I expect high school coaches to use common sense,’ Anderson said. “I expect them to be professional.  I expect them to look at and understand their athletes and I expect them to protect their athletes to the best of their ability.” Some coaches, he fears, might take the state mandate as the new norm, even though it might be too much full-contact for some athletes, he said.

• These changes build on some state standards already in place. Coaches in California must meet certain certification requirements to gain employment. “The California Interscholastic Federation, the state body that governs high school sports, requires written clearance from a licensed health care provider before athletes return from a suspected head injury,” Koran explained,

Two years ago, “California began requiring high school coaches to take a free online concussion awareness course that is approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” according to Sacramento’s ABC affiliate.

• One national change won’t be coming right away. In December, a federal judge rejected the NCAA’s proposed $75 million class-action settlement, which “would toughen return-to-play rules for players with concussions and create a $70 million fund to test current and former athletes in contact and noncontact sports for brain trauma. It also would set aside $5 million for research,” according to the AP.

Motivated Innovation

Meanwhile, schools, parents and researchers have begun taking proactive steps to address the concussion crisis.

• A new app to help screen for concussions is being tested at four high schools around Los Angeles, NBC 4 reported earlier this year. The app “measures a player’s motor skills, reaction time, visual memory and balance before the season begins … The information is stored and coaches and medical staff can access those earlier tests to evaluate a player’s impairment and possible concussion during a game. Advocates say the program could help save lives by preventing injured players from returning to the field.”

• Schools like Laguna Creek High in Sacramento County have started using the Heads Up tackling method, which emphasizes leading with a player’s shoulder instead of his head. Laguna Creek and the rest of Elk Grove Unified School District require players take a brain activity test before beginning practice and play. After an injury, a player’s doctor can compare brain activity to the earlier test to gauge the extent of damage.

Cathedral Catholic High and Francis Parker High School in San Diego have both explored high-tech helmets to detect concussions.

• In November, UCLA and Architected Materials researchers won a $500,000 grant to continue working on “microlattice” helmet material that absorbs energy upon impact. “Architected Lattice is light and breathable, and can be enhanced with a strain-sensing ‘smart lattice’ to detect and transmit data about the impact of a collision. This data could help engineers and product designers make further improvements in helmet design and performance,” according to UCLA.

Catherine Green was formerly the deputy editor at Voice of San Diego. She handled daily operations while helping to plan new long-term projects.

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