New NFHS Will Protect Kids But Potentially Frustrate Fans and Players

Drew Swank of Valley Christian High School in Spokane Washington died after suffering a head injury during a football game in 2009
Drew Swank of Valley Christian High School in Spokane Washington died after suffering a head injury during a football game in 2009

The risks for players and coaches alike continue to rise on the football field and in many other youth sports.  As bigger, faster, stronger athletes are being produced every year the physics are undeniably changing.

Mass x Acceleration = Force.  That force in G’s is staggering when two opposing players collide.

In fact Popular Mechanics released the results of a G-Force study they did.  An F-16 Fighter Jet exerts 9 G’s on the pilot.  An extreme Roller Coaster exerts about 5 G’s on the riders.  But a concussive blow on the football field was measured at a bone crushing 100 G’s.

An extreme blow on the Football Field can easily hit 150 G’s.  No wonder more and more players are having health issues related to brain injury and concussion issues both in the short and long term.

At only 5 ft. 11 in. and 199 pounds, Marcus Trufant is an average-size NFL defensive back (DB). That size won’t scare anybody in a league that had over 500 players weighing 300-plus pounds in 2006.

But take Marcus and his 4.55 speed. With his weight he reportedly can produce up to 1600 pounds of tackling force.

Ouch!  It only takes 550 pounds of force to snap a femur bone; in the case of football the padding disperses that force enough so bones in fact do not snap all the time.

But a brain floating in water in a human skull is different.  That Impact is causing that Brain a severe blow.

In an effort to curtail the increase in concussions and traumatic brain injuries on the high school football field the NFHS (National Federation of State High School Associations) revamped in particular the Rules members must follow in regards to concussions.

Now there is going to be new duties and expectations of the officiating crew, schools and coaches.  Pay attention to this because this is big.

This from the Link at the NFHS Website. From the NFHS Website directly:

"The concussion rule was one of 12 changes approved by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Football Rules Committee at its meeting last month in Indianapolis. The rule changes subsequently were approved by the NFHS Board of Directors.

The previous rule directed officials to remove an athlete from play if “unconscious or apparently unconscious.” The previous rule also allowed for return to play based on written authorization by a medical doctor.

Now, officials are charged with removing any player who shows signs, symptoms or behaviors consistent with a concussion, such as loss of consciousness, headache, dizziness, confusion or balance problems, and shall not return to play until cleared by an appropriate health-care professional.

"Given that the vast majority of concussions do not include a loss of consciousness, but that athletes often show obvious evidence of concussion, the NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee (SMAC) strongly believes that officials must continue to be empowered to remove these athletes from play, thus protecting them from further injury," said Dr. Michael Koester, chair of the SMAC.

“Continued participation in any sport following a concussion can lead to worsening concussion symptoms, as well as increased risk for further injury to the brain and even death.”

"The safety of the athlete is of paramount concern during any athletic contest. Officials, coaches and administrators are being asked to make all efforts at ensuring that concussed athletes do not continue to participate. Thus, coaches, players and administrators should also be looking for signs of concussion in all athletes and should immediately remove any suspected concussed athlete from play."

In addition to football, the new concussion language is being placed in all NFHS rules books for the 2010-11 season, as well as the "NFHS Suggested Guidelines for Management of Concussion."

OK.  These changes are fairly subtle and they are very much protective in nature.  That is a very good thing!

But upon further review something becomes clear.  Officials have an obligation to refer any player who displays any dizziness, loss of balance, confusion, nausea etc. to the sidelines.  This will certainly mean a great increase in the number of players being looked at for signs of concussions.

Now as per the rule the athlete  “shall not return to play until cleared by an appropriate health-care professional.”

Ok.  Good.  But let’s look at some possible applications of the rule.

In Example 1 a star QB is banged up at School “A” and gets up and stumbles. He is sent to the sidelines by a wary official.

School “A” has a team doctor.  He spends some time with the athlete and applies the ACE and SCAT Tests approved for return to play sideline concussion decisions. He passes and the doc after a few minutes makes the return to play decision.  Ok the system worked.

Now in Example 2 School “B” has a star QB.   After a tackle he gets up and stumbles a bit and is sent off the field.  This time he has an athletic trainer but the team does not have a team doctor.  Using the same tests and protocols the Trainer decides he is OK and clears him.  Will he be able to return? Maybe.

The answer to that lies in what his State Association and or League decides qualifies as a “appropriate health-care professional.”

Now for Example 3.  Team “C” has a star QB.  He takes the same blow…gets up and stumbles like his Team “A” and Team “B” Counterparts.

But his team has no Doctor and no Trainer either.  In fact like almost 50% of teams in America one or more of the coaches are the only medically trained person with a First Aid CPR Card.  The official makes the referral by rule.  But this time our player is done.  There is no way a Coach will be termed an appropriate Health Care Professional.

Three scenarios and three different results.  One returns to play.  One is a 50/50% maybe, and one is not coming back.

Now in all examples THAT PLAYER MUST NOT RETURN TO PLAY unless the Appropriate Medical Professional is 100% sure and ready to stake their career on it.

These examples are all probable results.

So we wondered if teams and coaches were ready to manage this one yet and placed a call to Brad Garrett at the Oregon Schools Activity Association. The OSAA helps its member schools deal with rules and policy changes.

“I was on that Committee at the NFHS National Conference.  We were all comfortable that this was needed.  Your right this is going to mean we are going to see teams with out trainers or team doctors not be allowed to return a player regardless of their condition,” said Garrett.  “The goal is safety first and err on the side of caution.  The rule is pretty clear and we are happy with it.”

Garrett said that the determination of “appropriate health-care professional” in Oregon is being debated right now at the Oregon Department of Education.  They are taking input and trying to decide if that description can include trainers, specially trained doctors, or any doctor.  They will also look at Physical Therapists, Chiropractors, and Paramedics.


“In many cases Trainers have more real in the field experience then any other medical professional.  That needs to be considered seriously in this process,” he added.  “We have one shot at getting this done right.  On behalf of the kids let’s do this right.”

As far as what could happen to the schools who do not have a doctor or a trainer Garrett had this to say.

“This new rule is going to mean that more teams need docs and trainers if they want to have things go on as they have in the past,” he concluded.

This debate and the decisions they make has pretty drastic consequences for teams and schools.

The NFHS rule is a good one.  Now we just need to get a National consensus on the definition of “appropriate health-care professional.”

From the officials stand point this seems onerous.

“Not so.  Not at all,” said Clark Sanders who is head of the Rules Committee of the Oregon Officials Association.

“This will mean that officials have expanded ability to get kids that need help off the field.  But at the point we refer them off  to their team  that athlete is in their care.  That kid will not come back into a game without proof he/she has been cleared,” he said. “This is a great thing for the safety of the kids and we applaud it as officials.”

Now he agreed too that if there is no medical professional that has been deemed “appropriate” willing to clear the player then there is no way that player will return.

Potentially schools and teams will need a way to track each player who is sent off.  The name and condition and time of the player should be logged in and the ACE or SCAT Concussion sideline test administrated.  The official should see a signed clearance to know that someone is putting their name on the line in order to facilitate a return to play.

You can see where this is all headed.  Players will be protected as priority one and parents, coaches, and fans will have to get used to the fact that many times players may be gone for a game, a week, a month before they come back.  In the end we will have safer sports and healthier kids.

It is the natural progression of things and lawyers and law makers will be circling this one making sure all are in compliance.

Insurance providers are talking too.  Risk is increasing and the stakes are higher.  The bar is being raised and teams and coaches are going to have to work very hard to manage the health of players.  But it must be this way.

In closing we want to remember one very special young man and his family we covered last year and became close with.

Andrew “Drew” Swank would have been saved potentially last year had this rule existed.

He was playing hurt in a game the week after receiving a concussion.  He was cleared to play without really any symptom free days.  That in and of itself is a major break with conventional thinking.

But when he was cleared and did play disaster ensued.

Out on the plains of Eastern Washington on a September night he played.  But he was not right all night.

“He was lethargic, slow, wobbly…. he was just not right,” said Drew’s Aunt Janie Swank-Burke.

By the second quarter Janie and Drew’s father Don had seen enough.  He had gone down hard and got up slow.  Then he was just standing dazed.  As his father and Aunt tried to reach him from the bleachers the play began.

Drew was standing limp staring at the oncoming linemen.  But he made no attempt to protect himself or defend the play.  In a split second he was run over.

As his Aunt and Father watched in horror he arose and stumbled the last 5 steps of his young life falling near his Father’s feet.  A few hours later he was gone and the world lost a wonderful young man.

Now think about that for a minute.  Close your eyes.     Do it.

Can you see him there.  Can you see his coach, his team mates, his family and opposing team?

Under the old rule the Official was not required to or supposed to send him out.  Now under the new rule he must.  In this case the officials did what they were supposed to do.

Maybe someone could have pulled Drew out and saved his life.

Under the new rule any coach, player, fan, linesmen or administrator can notify the official if they see a player in any trouble.   This can help the officials to help the athletes.  So we all have a stake in this now.  We can all be a part of the solution and we should be.

This story of Drew Swank and the kids like him is why rule changes, new practice requirements, and various other measures are of great importance and should not be viewed as anything other then a very needed evolution in youth sports.

If your program does not have a trainer or team Doctor get one.  A night at the movies is $40 for two people in most cities.  Paying another dollar or two to attend a High School football game so the kids can play safe is not even up for debate.

Best of luck to all teams, State associations, and officiating crews as we together embrace these changes and look to a safer future for our kids.

Find Out More about Drew Swank and How to Help by visiting JoinDrewsteam orBrainChampions,org.


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