The brain is a fragile thing.
Soft, tender tissue encased in bone, it is the most important functioning piece of the human body.
It controls our memories, thoughts and actions and has been responsible for advancements in society that seemed impossible at one time or another.
Why, then, are we doing so much damage to it within the game of football?
A concussion is defined by the Mayo Clinic as a traumatic brain injury that alters the way your brain functions. Effects are usually temporary but can include headaches and problems with concentration, memory, balance and coordination.
Four years ago, Texas took what many believed to be a big step in concussion prevention in high school sports — especially football.
When House Bill 2038 was passed by the Legislature, the way head injuries were approached by school districts changed drastically. Concussion Oversight Teams, or COTs, were required in every district, which set the guidelines for how concussions and other head injuries would be handled and when a student athlete could return to the playing field.
Coaching staffs would also have to learn about the dangers of concussions, and parents would be required to fill out a form acknowledging the potential for their children to sustain head injuries on the field.
Previously, coaches could send a player back into games or practices if he was concussion-free for 15 minutes. Now, a physician must clear the player before he or she can return to the field.
“At first you weren’t sure how this law was going to play out,” said Tom Bradley, Brazoswood High School assistant athletic trainer and member of Brazosport ISD’s COT. “But now, it’s very conservative and time-consuming, so it really gives (players) a lot of time to recover. I think athletic trainers are really in favor of it.”
It would seem with so much oversight, concussion numbers should be lower than ever. In fact, the University Interscholastic League reported just 295 concussions in high schools last year.
That seems like a low number, considering the state reported 805,299 participants in high school sports in 2014 — the most in the country.
Except for one thing — the UIL collects data from only 263 of the 3,709 high schools in the state. And the concussions that are reported are only from football.
Brazoswood head football coach Dean DeAtley said he has reported two concussions so far this season — one on the varsity team and one on the junior varsity.
“We had one subvarsity kid who has already made it back to playing. He’s played in one or two games,” DeAtley said. “And then we had a varsity lineman have a concussion, and it was our first of the season. He was sitting on the bench and the trainers went to him. And with the varsity, we also have Dr. (Jay) Hoffman at the games, and I think it is comforting to have an M.D. there.”
FINDING THE RIGHT FIT
With all of the new concussion initiatives, helmet manufacturers are trying harder than ever to keep players safe and figure out ways to prevent head injuries.
DeAtley said his players have four brands of helmets to choose from when they check out equipment before the season, as Xenith, Riddell, Rawlings and Schutt are available to Buccaneer players. But DeAtley said when it comes to how a player chooses a helmet, it is all about comfort.
“Most of our (varsity) kids will either wear the Xenith or the Riddell Speed or Revolution,” DeAtley said. “Depending on what you play, when you put a helmet on, if you’re a big lineman you’ve got a heavier cage. If you’re a wide receiver, you have a smaller cage.
“But as we put them on, the coaches say, ‘This Riddell, I don’t really like the way it fits up too high or too low on your nose. Let’s try a Xenith.’ And so we’ll put that one on and we feel better about that and then it’s, ‘Let’s go see the trainer,’ and he gives us the final check-off.”
The athletic trainers have the final say in which helmet a player wears, DeAtley said. The coaches can talk to the kids about what feels right, but the player cannot take the field unless a trainer says their helmet is right for them.
The trainers rely on the helmet manufacturers to do their job and produce safe, efficient helmets that live up to their safety ratings, Bradley said.
He said Xenith tends to have a higher safety rating, but all of the helmets are approved to be worn by Brazoswood athletes.
Bradley said there can be some problems with certain brands, especially ones that require the pumping of air into the padding.
“There are a lot you have to pump the air in, and they won’t hold air all the time,” Bradley said. “There’s different issues you can have with the ones that involve air. If they aren’t holding it, you have to replace the hardware inside to keep the air in.”
Because of those potential problems, Bradley said he and his staff now tend to use helmets that don’t require air.
“Some of these helmets you have to air up every practice or every game to keep it in,” Bradley said. “We like the ones here you don’t have to worry about that issue.”
While a Class 6A school, such as Brazoswood, may have multiple helmet options to choose from, Class 1A schools, like Brazosport Christian School, may have only one.
For BCS coach Tyler Sanders, that helmet is Ridell’s Speedflex helmet, the brand he said is the one he trusts most.
“Ridell has always been proven for me over 11 years,” Sanders said. “I’ve had minimal concussions, it seems like, over the course of 11 seasons. We got the Speedflex because we realized those were the highest rated ones on the market right now.”
BIG HITS MEAN BIG BUCKS
The Speedflex retails for between $324.99 and $399.99, depending on the size.
“I’m just committed to Ridell. I’m a Ridell guy and I think it is a very fair price for what we’re getting,” Sanders said.
Sanders said he has used the last three helmets Ridell has put out, and said there has only been one concussion reported on his team this season.
“(The player) was hit in the back of the head, it was freak thing really,” Sanders said. “It didn’t even have anything to do with the helmet.”
With the rise of awareness about concussions across the country, apparel manufacturers have begun to develop equipment to supplement helmets to reduce the impact of head-on collisions.
BCC Research, a market research firm based in Massachusetts, released a report in September stating the market for protective sports equipment will reach $2 billion by the end of the year.
One company at the forefront of impact-reducing technology is Guardian, an Atlanta-based manufacturer of padded helmet sleeves, called Guardian Caps, that are believed to reduce impact by up to 33 percent.
Guardian Caps have been in use since 2011 and are permitted for high school practices and games by the National Federation of State High School Associations.
The cap connects to the face mask with four elastic straps to cover the entire surface of the helmet with padding, and fits all helmet sizes from youth to professional.
More than 40,000 are being used in high schools and colleges all over the country, including at Clemson University, Toledo University, Syracuse University and the University of Oklahoma.
Guardian National Sales and Operations Manager Matt Simonds said the company has sold about 1,500 caps in Texas since 2011, but says growth in the state has been slow because the UIL follows NCAA rules, and the NCAA has not ruled on whether the caps are safe to wear.
“We’ve had slower growth in Texas than we’ve wanted,” Simonds said. “It’s the biggest football state, and we have a lot of energy dedicated toward it.”
DATA STILL IN QUESTION
But DeAtley said he cautions his players from using extra protection with their helmets, because if the player does suffer an injury, the manufacturer can say the helmet was tampered with and remove itself from liability.
“There are a lot of things that come that you can buy online that people try to sell you. But what every one of these companies do, they have these liners that I can’t tell you one of them because we don’t buy them,” DeAtley said. “These liners, if you put anything in that helmet, that is tampering with the helmet. If you break your neck or anything like that, they will not pay a penny, because you have done something to the helmet that they are unaware of.”
Simonds said the idea that helmet manufacturers can excuse themselves from responsibility is an argument that doesn’t hold water, and said just because they don’t like other companies’ products being used in conjunction with their helmets, doesn’t mean they aren’t safe and don’t help keep players safe.
“Luckily (the manufacturers) are not the judge and the jury,” Simonds said. “And it’s been a very effective tool to try and slow ours and other companies’ growth. But we would certainly never want to sell a product that would make a high school football coach the subject of a lawsuit.
“To our knowledge, Riddell and Xenith, they haven’t shown any data whatsoever saying, ‘Hey, the Guardian Cap makes your helmet less safe,’ or, ‘It puts your kid in a more dangerous situation.’ They just basically said, ‘We don’t want it there.’ That’s not enough to change their legal standing.”
Even with wide usage around the county, DeAtley said his main reasoning for staying away from extra equipment is simple — the research just isn’t there.
“Our previous trainers said there was not enough data on it to prove that it really held down concussions,” DeAtley said. “I think they said it was like putting Styrofoam around an egg. I think as you see other programs do it, if it’s really that great, you’ll see (Texas) A&M, Texas, Baylor — they’re going to be doing it real soon. And as soon as they do it, we’ll do it too. You have to be careful.”
Simonds said skepticism from coaches and trainers is warranted and makes sense, but there is research being done constantly to definitively prove their product and other supplemental impact-reduction products really work.
“A lot of people nationally are waiting in the wings for somebody nationally — some concussion expert or some researcher — to say, ‘This thing works, or this thing doesn’t work,’” Simonds said. “We offer anyone the opportunity to study the product at any point.”
Evan Dunbar is a sports reporter for The Facts. Contact him at 979-237-0161.