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'Get your head in the game'

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New state bill regulates head injuries in athletes

By Chris Cannon

ccannon@lafollettepress.com

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From the NFL to the youth leagues, concussions have become the talk of the game.

National stars are coming to the forefront, telling their story of how a traumatic brain injury has altered their life after professional football.

However, the state of Tennessee is looking to change the culture, as they focus on high school, middle school and youth athletics.

The new proposal, House Bill 0867, would require schools to adopt guidelines to educate coaches, athletic directors, student athletes and their parents about the signs of concussions.

A physician’s note releasing the player back to the field would also be a requirement under this new law, which Gov. Bill Haslam is expected to sign.

According to Jellico athletic director, Danny Oakes, not many things would change.

“What we would have to do now, if the parents are required to have to take the concussion course, we would have to set it up in a way that we could get our parents to take it,” Oakes said. “I think we could do it, but as far as our policy, it wouldn’t change a whole lot, except for the parents.”

Although the TSSAA recommends a test online, this new bill would require a test be performed every season.

The athletic director for the Campbell County school system, Johnny Bruce, said that the schools have already been requiring doctor notes in order for players to return.

“If we even suspect an athlete has a concussion, then we take them out immediately, and they have to go to the doctor,” he said. “We have to have a written note releasing them before they can come back to practice or play.”

However, in a survey done by the LaFollette Press, the results were shocking.

Overall, 98 high school student athletes, between Jellico and Campbell County High Schools, were questioned about their feelings on concussions.

Of those 98 results, 77 of those (78.6 percent) rated their concern from moderate to no concern at all.

“We think as teenagers that we’re invincible,” Bruce said. “A lot of times, they won’t tell the coach that they’re hurt. That’s where we have to educate the athletes to let us know…it’s serious business now. It’s something that can damage a young man’s life.”

For Campbell County head football coach Justin Price, the concern is shrinking in high school football.

TSSAA and other governing bodies have changed rulings and policies in order to protect student athletes.

According to Price, it also falls upon the coaches to teach player the proper ways to hit in football.

“I’ve heard of parents, you know, they get so nervous when their kid is riding a bike,” Price said. “There’s a high percent that kids can get hurt doing that, but that doesn’t mean parents do not let them ride a bike. They kind of teach them from day one of how to do it. Maybe, it’s with training wheels. That’s the same thing we do as coaches. Before they go in and start hitting full pads, we teach them how to tackle.”

While players weren’t concerned about their own possibilities of concussions, they were split on the question of their fellow teammates.

The question was asked, “Your team is in the biggest game of the season and your star player gets a concussion. Would you rather lose the game as he sits out, or win it because he chooses to play?”

Surprisingly, only 53 percent (52 interviewees) responded with the fact that they would rather lose the game, while keeping their teammate safe.

According to Price and Oakes, it’s a good idea for the policies and medical staff to step in, keeping those peer pressures and coaching decisions from putting players in danger.

“I’ll be honest,” Oakes said. “It’s putting a tough burden on our coaches. Even with the (online) training, I don’t feel 100 percent safe that all of our coaches can recognize, ‘Does a kid have a concussion or not?’ I think one of the biggest things that is hurting us, is that we don’t have a trainer.”

For Campbell County, their trainer from Tennova is a blessing, according to Price.

“As coaches, it kind of takes it out of our hands,” he said. “We all want to win, and we want what’s best for our team. In the end, it’s about making sure that our players are safe and that we’re doing all that we can to not put them in a situation where they’re not ready to go.”

Helmet policies have also been put in place, where a helmet must be inspected each year.

A helmet’s not allowed to be used past 10 years, helping ensure student safety.

According to Price, however, concussions are always going to be a part of the sport.

“I don’t think you could ever stop them,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any equipment or helmet out there that they will ever make that completely eliminates concussions, but I think there’s a lot of smart people out there that will do the best they can to prevent them as much as possible.”