Finally some good news.
That might have been the thoughts coming from football coaches around the state Friday. News was spreading about a recently released study that said the limitations placed on tackling in practice, which were implemented by the WIAA before the start of last season, are having a positive effect on limiting concussions.
According to a study done by the University of Wisconsin’s Timothy McGuine and M. Alison Brooks, the rate of concussions sustained during practice was “more than twice as high” in the two seasons before the rule change compared to 2014, the first year of the new rules for practice were in place.
The news came during a season that has included some sobering news about the sport. Seven players have died as a result of football-related injuries this season. The latest happened Friday when Andre Smith, a player from Chicago, died one day after sustaining a hit during a game. According to reports, the county coroner ruled the cause of death blunt force head injuries due to a football accident.
Add the increased awareness there has been for head injuries in the past few years, and you understand why supporters of the sport may feel like they’re facing an uphill battle these days when discussing its safety. McGuine’s and Brooks’ research offers some support in that regard.
But that isn’t the only reason the study is noteworthy. I believe it is the first that compares concussion rates before the WIAA changed its policy to the numbers produced in 2014, the first year of the practice limitations.
I contacted McGuine to ask him about his work with concussions, but for him that work is part of a bigger picture of athlete injuries and their effects on long-term health. Given their regularity, he is as concerned with knee, ankle and shoulder injuries as he is with concussions.
“I like to put it in perspective,” he said. “Whenever I talk to parents, I say I know you’re hearing so much about concussions. Every Saturday, every Sunday, that’s all you hear. All the media hypes about is concussions, concussions, concussions and all of us who have been in injury prevention for 20 years are going, ‘Wait a minute.’ We’ve been saying we need to prevent all these injuries.”
McGuine has studied and written about a number of injuries suffered by athletes. Some of his recent studies have focused on the effects of ankle injuries and new helmet technology.
It was that helmet research, completed two years ago, that opened the door for this latest study. For that study, 1,000 high school players in 2012 and 1,000 in 2013 were analyzed for factors that included the type of helmet the player wore and whether a concussion was sustained.
When the WIAA changed its rules on contact during football practice, McGuine and Brooks were in a great position to study the impact of the rule change.
“We had this unique opportunity to look at the rule change, so that is what we did,” McGuine said.
In the summer of 2014, the WIAA and Wisconsin Football Coaches Association worked together on a plan to limit the amount of contact in football practices. The plan restricted contact during the first week of practice, limited it to 75 minutes during the second week and allowed 60 minutes per week for the rest of the season.
That plan came less than a year after the WIAA pushed back the first day of contact for football from the fourth day of practice to the seventh and limited teams to 2½ hours of practice per day throughout the regular season.
One thing the WIAA or the WFCA has not reported is the total number of concussions its football players have received. Each season, Brooks’ and McGuine’s study provides the best numbers I’ve seen so far, but there are some caveats with the study.
The study focused on only about 1,000 players. It also hinged on the help of trainers, and McGuine notes that only about one-third of the schools have a full-time trainer on staff and not all those districts agreed to participate in the study.
Also, the data only represents concussions suffered during practice. Concussions suffered during games dropped slightly, McGuine said.
But don’t be mistaken, this is progress. There is a genuine effort to make the game safer whether we’re talking about the rules limiting contact in practice or emphasis in games to protect defenseless receivers or penalize spearing. Time will tell how much of an impact it makes.
Meanwhile, McGuine will continue his work. In the future he hopes to study the impact medical coverage has on concussion reporting. Do schools with athletic trainers do a better job of managing concussions? And how does sports specialization affect injury rates?
“So many people want to ask these questions and they can best be studied with long-term cohorts,” McGuine said. “I propose in the state let’s get 10,000 kids in Grade 5 into these studies. Let’s measure them and follow them every year and follow them through their high school career and find out who stays in sports, who doesn’t.
“Who lost opportunities in sports because maybe their school or community club couldn’t afford it. Who dropped out of sport because of an injury and then measure their fitness and measure their long-term effects.
“You could follow that cohort for years and really (find out) what is the value this instead of saying let’s have all these kids do this let’s find out the cost benefit of participating in soccer or hockey or not.”
When the WIAA changed its rules on contact during practice, McGuine and Brooks were in a great position to study the impact of the change.
By Mark Stewart. This article was republished with permission from the original publisher Journal Sentinel Inc., Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Wisconsin)