Football is facing a crisis. Science is only beginning to recognize the long-term impacts the game poses to players’ brains. But the risks might be even higher for players at cash-strapped schools, who have less access to the resources that keep them safe.
That’s not the voice of football-reforming safety advocates. Those admissions came from California Interscholastic Federation Executive Director Roger Blake – the man in charge of athletic policies for 1,554 California high schools – during a discussion VOSD hosted last week.
The state body can create safety rules and educates stakeholders about concussions. Beyond that, though, there’s not much the league can do to stem concussions until schools hire more athletic trainers, Blake said.
“Let’s talk the reality of it,” Blake said. “Fifteen hundred-plus high schools. They aren’t equal. They aren’t the same. And that’s the sad part. There’s the haves and the have-nots.”
Only 19 percent of kids in California have access to a full-time athletic trainer at their schools, he said. “That’s a terrible figure. Because that means that 81 percent of our kids, when they get out of class, there’s not a medical professional there to help them.”
Essentially, Blake is saying that safety, in large part, boils down to a funding issue. Some schools, like Francis Parker, the private San Diego high school where the debate took place, are able provide full-time athletic trainers and equip kids with high-tech football helmets that alert coaches of possible concussions. Other schools have limited access to trainers, or none at all.
On top of providing immediate attention to injured players, more trainers would go a long way toward keeping accurate data on how many athletes are getting concussed.
One of the things we discovered when we investigated a traumatic brain injury at La Jolla High is that very little data that exists on this front. CIF doesn’t maintain an injury database and doesn’t mandate school districts to document concussions sustained during athletics. And because they’re not required to track them, many districts don’t – at least in an aggregate way, where the data is easily accessible.
Again, it comes back to trainers: They’re the only ones able to enter concussion data into available record-keeping systems, Blake said.
The only problem: That’s not entirely true.
First, schools could keep better concussion data even without athletic trainers. Some systems might require trainers to enter the data, but others, like the one developed by the Agency for Student Health Research, allow coaches or other designees to document the circumstances around injuries.
Charlie Wund, the agency’s president, said the paperless system streamlines communication and helps districts keep injury data in real time. The system is inexpensive – around $500 for a yearly subscription to the service – and grants could offset most of that cost, Wund said.
But the bigger issue with Blake’s perspective is that it essentially absolves CIF of responsibility and lays the problem on the feet of school districts. Yes, the game needs to be safer, Blake says, but that requires more athletic trainers, and trainers require more money.
Money is a convenient solution to most problems. But it overlooks the fact that there are steps that can be taken to make the game safer that are within reach.