Blink and we are already a quarter of the way through July. The Royals have long since flamed out like the quick flash of fireworks in the sky (enjoy that initial boom because you know it will only last a second), we have been to a place where we turned to hot dog eating for a competitive fix, and the 100 degree heat has us begging for the crisp fall weather.
Or maybe it is the promise of humans in armor smashing into each other over and over in order to move the front line into enemy territory that has us jacked up for the fall.
It is a fantastic sport that has become our real national pastime. Football has a little bit of everything. It has jaw-dropping, rise up out of your seat violence, territorialism, snarling aggression, athletic diving fingertip catches, both thunderous straight ahead runs and ankle-breaking cuts for daylight, and passionate fans that make the earth rumble under the athletes’ feet.
The pure spectacle of football is almost too much to believe. Entire towns wait all week to head to the stadium to re-meet people who would otherwise be strangers, and cheer on the team. Petty neighborhood feuds over overhanging tree limbs are forgotten as people dress in the same color and chant together in full throat.
But in the middle of all the excitement, hype, and competitiveness, it is worth stepping back and remembering that blows to the head are extremely dangerous with long-term consequences.
With the start of July, the Kansas State High School Activities Association has adopted a new set of rules regarding head injuries in compliance with the School Sports Head Injury Prevention Act enacted by the Kansas Legislature.
Before an athlete is allowed to practice or play in any contest, they and a parent or guardian must sign a release form explaining concussions, the symptoms, the consequences, and what to do in the event one is suffered.
This is pretty standard stuff here. It’s your basic, “You have been warned,” package. But it’s what happens after the athlete has been properly warned and cleared that is important.
Starting this month, according to the School Sports Head Injury Act, “If a school athlete suffers, or is suspected of having suffered, concussion or head injury during a sport competition or practice session, such school athlete immediately shall be removed from the sport competition or practice session.”
Hallelujah. It’s not like high school sports are run by Bud Kilmer-type coaches (monsters) who are sending Billy Bob out to play at the risk of permanent brain damage or death, but it is nice to have a law on the books here.
Concussions are a mysterious injury that science still has a lot to learn about. They are not like a broken bone that will show up on an MRI, but rather brain damage at a molecular level that can’t be seen. But doctors have learned a lot in recent years, and it is clear that there is no such thing as insignificant head injuries.
I am sure that a lot of people in my generation, many generations older than me, and even people younger than me, based on new information on what constitutes a concussion, can look back on our playing days and remember concussions suffered that went untreated and written off as dings or, “You just got your bell rung.”
It is horrifying to consider the possible effects of these injuries that so many either could have faced, or are in fact facing right now due to a simple lack of knowledge. Between the dementia, Parkinson’s, epilepsy, crippling depression and diminished speech amongst other things, it is a good thing that dings are being seriously looked at.
Of course these possible long-term effects are a worst case scenario, and a bump here and there is not that big of a deal right? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Repeated mild traumatic brain injuries occurring within a short period of time (i.e., hours, days, or weeks) can be catastrophic or fatal.”
Blows to the head happen, but it is repeated and continuous trauma that can end badly, real badly. And for this reason, after a player is required to be removed from a game or practice, they must have a written clearance to return from a health care provider under the new rules.
Contact sports like football are easy to single out here as the violence is right out on display. And the NFL has largely carried the most visible banner of rule changes to protect the health of players with the NHL following close behind. But these types of injuries can and do happen in all sports. Knowing what we now know, rule changes will make games safer, keeping the best athletes on the field, which will in turn make the games better.
Remember the hit Aaron Rome leveled on Nathan Horton in the Stanley Cup Finals? The shot occurred in Game 3, and took Horton out for the rest of the 7-game series. It also resulted in a well-deserved 5-minute major penalty, game misconduct, and suspension for Rome, ending his series as well.
The punishment Rome received for the hit was just. It was a horrible shot that should never happen. But there was a time when this hit would have been legal. It was a clean blow to the head with the shoulder, a hit New Jersey Devil Scott Stevens, a defenseman regarded as one of the hardest and cleanest hitters in the game, made a career of.
Don’t believe me? Compare the Rome hit on Horton with this Stevens hit against Paul Kariya in the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals. These are nearly identical hits. Both puck carriers get a pass off in about equal time before taking a blind-side blow to the chin at the blue line.
But there is a difference. Stevens didn’t receive so much as a 2-minute minor penalty let alone a suspension. He kept his elbow down and finished the check with his shoulder, the right way to do it according to the rules as recently as eight years ago when this occurred.
Another difference is that despite being kayoed on the ice, unconscious and for a time not breathing, Kariya returned to the game and even scored a goal. Remember, repeated mild brain injuries in a short period of time (hours, days, or even weeks) can be catastrophic or fatal!
This was as much as we knew about brain injuries, not even a full decade ago.
The point is that we do know better these days, and changes are thankfully and mercifully being made accordingly. Knowing what we now know, we can flip out and run away in horror, or we can put this knowledge to good use and make things safer.
It seems that safer is the way not only major professional sports leagues but the KSHSAA have chosen to go, and if you are a sports fan, this should be fantastic news.