New high school and professional football regulations aim to reduce concussions and injuries
May 11, 2016
We threw an interception, so I made an open field tackle,” senior Dominic Antinozzi said.
Antinozzi plays left guard on the Decatur varsity football team. He stands six feet tall, weighs 285 pounds and is not easy to knock down.
“I made contact and remember seeing blood from his broken nose as all of us hit the ground,” he said.
Antinozzi didn’t lose consciousness.
“There was a shooting pain in the front of my head, and my surroundings became foggy,” he said. “I felt disorientated and unable to focus on one thing at a time.”
Playing against Westminster, about half way through the third quarter, Antinozzi experienced his first concussion.
The National Football League’s “Return to Play” policy states that signs of a concussion are “new and persistent headache, particularly if accompanied by photosensitivity, nausea, vomiting or dizziness.”
Sophomore Jake Broom, a linebacker on the varsity football team, also experienced a concussion during the 2015 season.
“When it happened, I was running across the field and dove to block a kick, but I hit my other teammate head-to-head,” Broom said. “I don’ t think I blacked out, but I got up feeling really dizzy and had a severe headache.”
After the collision, the symptoms went away, but they returned later that night, this time more severe. This was his only concussion, and it healed in a week.
Antinozzi, on the other hand, suffered another concussion a few months after his first.
“The second concussion happened when my feet were pulled out from under me during a wrestling match,” he said. “I hit my head on the mat. I cut my eyebrow and got eight stitches. I didn’t black out this time either. After they bandaged my head, I finished the match and won.”
Antinozzi went to the hospital following his wrestling match to be an evaluated. At the emergency room, he could only receive the standardized concussion exam.
“If you go to the emergency room, there is no test,” Joan Reed, head athletic trainer for Decatur, said. “There is no blood test, there is no definitive MRI, functional MRI or CT scan that says, ‘yes, that’s a concussion.’”
Concussions are easier to diagnose today because specialists know what symptoms to look for.
“They have been redefined in the way we access them, and the way we manage them is far different than what we used to do,” Reed said. “I have seen far more concussions in the past five years than I have seen in my entire career.”
More athletes are getting help and seeking treatment for minor head injuries, but still others ignore their symptoms and continue playing. For those who are injured, continuing to play can cause further injury.
“Most often what happens is a young player sustains a concussion and goes out and kind of downplays the symptoms so that they can go back in and play,” Matt Nelson, an emergency physician consultant who has worked with the Green Bay Packers, said. “It might be a day or two later or even the same game they’re often put back in, in order to play. That’s when they get a second injury, and that can result in some permanent damage.”
Some schools have shut down entire sports teams to protect their student athletes from severe injuries.
Nick Ithomitis, principal of Camden Hills Regional High School, made the decision to fold the high school’s 2015 football season.
This eventually led to the cancellation of their football team due to injuries and lack of experienced players. This prevented the school from having a football team for two years following the season.
“It was very difficult looking those kids in the eye and telling them we were cancelling their season,” Ithomitis said.
The team consisted of almost all freshmen and included three girls.
“They didn’t understand,” Ithomitis said. “‘They said,‘We’re willing to play. We understand there is a risk. Why are you doing this to us?’”
During their last game, five of their starters were sidelined, and two of those five went to the hospital for precautionary measures.
“There was about 15 or 16 players left, some of those were very young inexperienced kids and the coach was having a hard time making a decision deciding who they were gonna put in because they didn’t want to put someone in and jeopardize them,” he said. “It was really the number [of players] that dictated what we did.”
Last August by the National Federation of State High School Associations released six rule changes to high school football to minimize injury to athletes.
These recent changes intend to make high school football less dangerous during contact.
Rule 9-4-3g now reads, “No player or non-player shall make any contact with an opponent, including a defenseless player, which is deemed unnecessary or excessive and which incites roughness.”
An example would be a defensive player, not close to the ball, who has been blindsided or tackled by an offensive blocker.
Spearing is another regulation penalized to minimize head contact.
Spearing is now considered “an act by any player who initiates contact against an opponent at the shoulders or below with the crown (top portion) of his helmet.”
John Dunham, head athletic trainer at Emory University, has seen improvement in regulation changes.
Dunham recognizes that sports in general have always held a possibility of injury.
“With athletics there is an inherent risk of participation,” Dunham said. “Our job from the medical sight is to allow athletes to compete but in the safest way possible and that’s where the challenge is.”
Along with recent regulation revisions in high school football, the National Football League has adjusted policies as well.
“Helmets have definitely gotten better in terms of the fit, the padding and the mouth gear,” Nelson said. “One of the main reasons people can get a concussion is if your mouth is open. Hitting your teeth together, believe it or not, can cause enough of a whiplash injury to cause a concussion.”
Nelson believes this improvement of equipment in the “past five to ten years” has cut down on the number of concussions.
Certain NFL teams have started looking into tackling tactics similar to rugby.
“Rugby players tackle far more than football players do in a game, and the way they are taught to tackle is to not use their head,” Nelson said.
Players are being taught to tackle with their arms instead of leading with their heads to eliminate head to head contact.
While specialists are being proactive to prevent concussions, new treatment methods have been brought to attention about the healing process of concussions as well.
According to a March “Training and Conditioning” article, experts have recently started looking at “active rehabilitation” in contrast to “prolonged rest.”
Studies have shown that “incorporating cognitive, physical, and social activities in concussion rehab was associated with improved outcomes.”
Although Nelson and Dunham both agree that recent changes have improved the understanding of concussions, Dunham still thinks further research needs to be done.
“Have we come a long way in evaluation? Absolutely,” Dunham said. “Do we have a long way to go? Absolutely. I think we are just tipping the iceberg of the evaluation process, in the understanding of them and the treatment of them.” n
Photos by Chaney Wynne and Madison Castle