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Concussions in sports, including - of course - high school football, remain a hot topic even as some might think they can put subject on back burner. In top photo, a Montclair player pays tribute to the late Mountie Ryne Dougherty who passed away in 2008 from a brain injury suffered during a jayvee game at Don Bosco Prep. The NJSIAA and experts from the medical realm have continued to deal with issue on the Garden State scholastic scene. (Sideline Chatter file photo and also photos courtesy of youtube and the Huffington Post)

Awareness Of Sports Concussions
Still Front & Center In High Schools

By Steve Tober
For sidelinechatter.com 

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) has received considerable attention in regards to the now fact-based assertion that there is a sports-related brain syndrome caused by repeated blows to the head.

Football, particularly, has received most of the publicity with reports that NFL players have died either from CTE-related changes to the brain or – in selected cases - by one’s own hand, via suicide, as changes to the interior cerebral passages have frequently resulted in an inability to control one’s emotions and impulses, a memory loss, depression and – in some cases - eventual dementia.

But, other sports also experience their own fair share of concussion-related injuries to the head of young athletes, whether we’re talking soccer, ice hockey, lacrosse or any number of other games where CTE is an ever-present threat.

Sports concussions and the post-traumatic, ever-lasting effects of what can be a very precarious condition related to brain injuries have been dealt head-on with the continued efforts of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA), highlighted by the continued implementation of legislation put forth by the state Department of Education which went into effect for all high school athletes back in September of 2011 and continues to be strongly promoted and enforced as the 2019 fall season is now fully underway.

A condition that has become almost an epidemic in youth and high school sports across America is being dealt with as a vital issue to not only be fully aware of on a daily basis, but also to be approached with the concussed athlete’s health and welfare at center stage above and beyond any quick return to the field of play.

“The goal is to be better able to identify when these blows to the head are happening at younger and younger ages,” said Dr. Jill Brooks, a clinical neuropsychologist, who has a private practice, ‘Head To Head Consultants’ in Gladstone where she deals directly with concussed athletes, along with being a member of the NJSIAA’s medical advisory committee that helped put together the guidelines that have now been in effect in New Jersey the past eight years. “We want to try and make sure that the injured athletes are not adversely effected now or later in life by the consequences of concussions.

“No piece of equipment can prevent a concussion, nor are they designed to prevent concussions. Plus, there is always the factor that everyone’s brain is wired differently, and he or she is therefore affected differently.”

Dr. Brooks has also spoken on behalf of sports concussion campaigns around the state and she was quoted in an ESPN magazine July, 2017 article from the periodical’s ‘Body issue’ regarding concussions, and the still sometimes untold story of the major impact that has been absorbed by female athletes.

"More and more of the athletes I have seen over time are young women, and I've found they get less information about concussion from their coaches, and from the media too, than men," said Dr. Brooks. "They are struggling to deal with their particular symptoms and often not being taken as seriously as they should be.

“The sports world is much more accepting of girls and women as athletes but still gives the topic of their concussions short shrift."

Indeed, while football players have been a major focus in the discussion of the terrible after-effects of concussions, and other brain injuries incurred in the sport’s often violent setting, it’s not just the gridiron game where concussions are a significant problem.

“Concussions occur in a wide variety of sports, and females are just as affected as males,” continued Brooks. “We see girls suffering concussions in sports such as soccer, field hockey and basketball.

“There are mid-air collisions, body slams, whiplash and pivot-like movements of the neck and head that boys and girls absorb along with hitting their heads on the ground or floor in several different sports.”

With the now 8-year-old Department of Education criteria, the hope is that everyone involved in sports will take the discussion of a concussion as indeed being a brain injury quite seriously now and in moving forward.

“When in doubt, sit them out,” Brooks asserted. “We want to educate everyone and work with individuals.

“I do know that we have some wonderful athletic trainers in our schools and they are a terrific resource because they have become increasingly knowledgeable about concussions. We will certainly count on their expertise whenever possible, but everyone –athletes, coaches and parents included – must be educated.”

Indeed, whether we’re talking football players or those involved in women’s soccer, concussions are prevalent and they are an area where the NJSIAA continues to be at the forefront as we’re now underway with the 2019-2020 school year, supporting the work of people who have been intently involved in studying the subject, such as Dr. Brooks.

Since the June 2011 alteration of its concussion policy, the NJSIAA has closely monitored outcomes, and results appear quite favorable, the organization said. This policy, updated by the association's Medical Advisory Committee, has been in effect for the entirety of the recently completed 2018-2019 school year.

The NJSIAA policy requires that a physician specifically trained in the evaluation and management of concussions provide written clearance − in the form of a standardized Return to Play (RTP) document − before a student returns to competition or even practice. Prior to the policy change, athletes would still be blocked from returning to a game or practice until having been evaluated by a physician, but there was no requirement for written documentation of the clearance.
The prior policy on concussions was thorough, but the NJSIAA was continuing to look to do everything possible to safeguard student-athletes from head injuries and their aftermath. The revised policy has helped prevent a number of athletes from returning to competition too soon after sustaining a head injury.

Public awareness of the dangerous consequences of concussions has increased rapidly during the past decade, as a number of high-profile athletes who participate in contact sports − with an emphasis on the National Football League (NFL) and the National Hockey League − have struggled with ongoing symptoms after being diagnosed with concussions. The Pittsburgh Penguins' superstar Sidney Crosby, certainly one of the world's most recognizable hockey names during his playing days was sidelined for the majority of two seasons with lingering symptoms. In addition, former New York Jets receiver Wayne Chrebet retired in 2005 after a series of concussions, while NFL Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young and Troy Aikman both were forced into early retirement because of repeated head trauma.

The intent remains to shield athletes with head injuries from aggravating those injuries to the point of creating long-term symptoms and as, the NJSIAA has emphasized, someone with a concussion can become more vulnerable to suffering further concussions − particularly if they return to competition too soon.

High school and youth athletes, coaches and parents have been provided with information and asked to learn as much as they can about concussions and how to deal with them with the new state edict (read details of the Department of Education plan further below in this story) that went into effect Sept. 1, 2011, and will certainly affect how student-athletes and members of recreation teams are handled moving forward when it comes to sports-related head injuries.

“When someone returns to play too soon, and then takes another hit, sustaining that second blow can be devastating,” said Brooks. “It can be a tragedy for somebody’s child and devastating for everyone who witness such an occurrence.”

Back in October of 2008, a Montclair High School junior varsity football player, Ryne Dougherty, 16, died after suffering a brain hemorrhage while making a tackle in the midst of a jayvee game at Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey. Steve Glassman, a member of the officiating crew that worked the game and saw Dougherty injured on the field, was haunted by what he witnessed.

“It was horrible, and I’ve thought about it for a long time,” Glassman said. “Such a tragedy and you felt terrible for the young man and his family. It was obvious he was in bad shape when that injury occurred.

“You just hate to see something like that happen in a high school football game, or anywhere for that matter; that’s for sure.”

Tragedies due to hard hits absorbed to the head, such as what occurred in the tragic passing of young Dougherty of Montclair, are among the worst possible scenarios from brain injuries.

Another case that received more attention on a national basis, and was another case of utter devastation when it comes to head injuries, was the story involving the hardships endured by NFL Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey and his family due to the former Baltimore Colts standout suffering from frontal temporal dementia, a condition where the effects are considered by some to be even more brutal than Alzheimer’s disease.

The link of football and the long-term effect of brain injuries is epitomized in the tragic case of Mackey, a once bright and effervescent leader of the NFL Player’s Union, who played in the league from 1963-72 and was diagnosed with dementia in 2001. He died July 6, 2011, at age 69.  

Back in September of 2010, a 23-year-old wide receiver for the Denver Broncos named Ken McKinley, who had absorbed concussions, committed suicide.

He had played football since the age of 5. Some experts, including the Nigerian forensic neuropathologist Bennet Omalu, whose groundbreaking work in the subject of CTE and the NFL led to the popular film, “Concussion,” starring Will Smith, have urged parents NOT to allow their sons to play football before reaching high school. 

The NJSIAA and state Department of Education information and guidelines for dealing with concussions include such aspects as:

The effort to make sure that athletes will immediately be removed from play if they exhibit signs or symptoms of a concussion.

Athletes suffering a concussion or other head injury must wait a week without symptoms before returning to play and must complete a detailed process including aerobic exercise and clearance from a medical expert.

Athletes, trainers and coaches will undergo annual training about concussions, including awareness of the symptoms.

Even football officials are being taught about being as aware as possible of taking notice when a player takes a hard hit to the head and exhibits any indications of a much more serious problem.          

Follow Steve Tober on Twitter @Chattermeister        


Dr. Jil Brooks, a noted clinical neuropsychologist located in Gladstone, is on NJSIAA's medical advisory committee with an expertise on the topic of concussions which continue to be dealt with as recognized dilemma in high school sports and not just in football which has received most of the national attention. (photo is courtesy of Partners For Health)

Concussions are being taken seriously by a number of organizations throughout the world as the topic has been prevalent in several sports including football, soccer and lacrosse.

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