By ELLAH FOSTER
While concussions are nothing new, they have been taken much more seriously in recent years due to alarming statistics and the serious outcomes of these injuries. Sports administrators at Carmel High School are taking a closer look at the damage that concussions can have on the brain as well as how to prevent them.
“A concussion is often abbreviated to TBI for traumatic brain injury, and it happens when the brain rattles in the skull,” sports medicine teacher Matt Borek says. “The brain is suspended in fluid so when you hit your head, it can even slam against the skull. There are a lot of varying degrees of concussions.”
Contact sports, defined as activities where bodily contact is necessary and frequent, tend to have the highest rate of concussions. While football is often at the top of the list, another sport has made itself known to be particularly at risk for concussions: girls’ soccer. Wellington Hsu, a professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, reports that girls’ soccer may even be at a higher rate than football, due to the lack of protective gear.
Up to 3.8 million teenagers (aged 14-19) are treated annually in emergency rooms for sports-related concussions, according to the National Institute of Health. Concussion rates are measured by “athlete exposures,” defined as one player participating in a game or practice. There is a certain rate for every 1,000 athletic exposures. Behind sports such as ice hockey and rugby, soccer comes in at .23 for every 1,000 contacts, according to Complete Concussion Management.
At CHS, the girls’ soccer teams, both junior varsity and varsity, suffered from seven or eight concussions in the 2017-2018 season, according to Borek. After reading numerous articles about the severity of brain injuries, the athletic trainer said he felt as though there needed to be some sort of preventative gear to lower the number of concussions in the soccer programs.
That prevention now comes in the form of a black headband, mostly from the brand Unequal, that is worn around the players’ foreheads. With the feel of memory foam, the headbands fit tightly and are meant to reduce the risk of a traumatic brain injury, or TBI, during contact mostly between head and ground. A meeting was then called with the boys’ and girls’ varsity coaches, Troy Grande and Krista Winkler, to discuss the implementation.
“Borek did some research, and he got a few samples of the headbands,” CHS athletic director Golden Anderson says. “He then met with me and Principal Lopez, and we agreed that if there is something that we can do to help, then we should do it.”
While the girls’ programs had the higher number of concussions last year, administrators agreed that it was best to implement the headbands into both programs.
“That number was almost unheard of, unprecedented, so it was decided that the girls’ team was for sure going to get headbands,” Winkler recalls. “Well, how do you mandate concussion headbands for girls and not boys when it is the exact same sport?”
Carmel athletes’ immediate reactions were mostly negative, with many complaining about the look and size of gear. However, the school rules for both teams remained the same: Wear the gear at all times or don’t play. Junior Nico Staehle explains his reluctance to the headband is rooted in the fit of the product, not the goal of lowering concussion rates.
“My initial reaction to wearing the headbands, as well as my team’s reaction, was extremely annoyed,” Staehle begins. “I was one of the first athletes to test the headband out, and it was stiff and uncomfortable. I couldn’t imagine playing in it.”
Grande believes the headbands have thus far reduced the number of concussions since they haven’t had any this year, saying he hopes to continue this streak.
“The boys ripping off the headbands was more in frustration rather than about the band itself,” Grande laughs. He adds that, whether they were purposely taking off the headband, it still serves as a good opportunity to take them out of the game for a few minutes and let them cool off.
Staehle explains his team believed the enforcement of the gear would be temporary, but so far the rules have stuck—both in and out of games.
While many on the boys’ team are opposed, others have either gotten used to the gear or don’t see the point in complaining. Junior Cole Sawyer believes that since the number of concussions on the boys’ team was lower than on the girls’, the headbands aren’t necessary, but also doesn’t feel as though they affect the way that he plays.
“At the beginning of the season, we were purely concerned with looking silly in the headbands because we are the only school in the area that requires them,” Sawyer details.
The idea of appearance rather than functionality was also prevalent on the girls’ team, although they have seemingly come to terms with the gear and haven’t had any disciplinary action take place. Once the team received the headbands, Winkler began to wear one at all times when she plays. If the Unequal band is ever forgotten, she also provides extras to leave no options for players to sit out unless it is in protest of wearing the gear.
“I think the risk of concussions are definitely a big enough problem to have to wear the headbands, especially in soccer,” varsity girls’ captain senior Lexi Sakoda. “We are at such a high risk because we often use our heads in aggressive play.”
“The girls were not happy in the beginning, prior to seeing them,” Winkler says. “They had built it up to be some full helmet, so then they got them and I think, that in a good way, it was like, ‘Oh, they aren’t bad.’ Of course, though, there were some comments and jokes made.”
Anderson adds that he understands why the programs had opposition to the gear since it is new and no other teams in the league are mandated to wear them.
While the beginning of the season harbored some negativity surrounding the headbands, Grande assures that his players have gotten over wearing them, even though they don’t like it.
With so many claims from the varsity boys’ team being that the gear is unnecessary, can that be easily disregarded? It was discovered that within sex-comparable sports, the rate of concussions was 56 percent higher in girls rather than boys, according to a study released by the Journal of Athletic Training in 2017.
As more research surfaces of females being more prone to concussions than males, the reasons behind such claims are still left relatively undetermined. Neurologist Andrew Russman from the Cleveland Clinic suggests that it could be due to the comparative neck muscles in females and males when heading the ball.
“Young women have less developed neck musculature than their male counterparts, which can account for some of the increased risks,” Russman explains.
Another possibility, notes Russman, is that females are simply more likely to report their symptoms, meaning that they are not actually at a higher risk and the higher rate can be accounted for by women seeing doctors more regularly.
Regardless of gender, Winkler believes that soon the Unequal headbands won’t be out of the ordinary for teams and will start to be a requirement everywhere. American soccer player Ali Krieger made headlines in 2015 when she wore a concussion headband during the U.S. World Cup games, sparking conversation regarding the gear.
While the Carmel soccer teams add this additional piece of protection, other sports offered at CHS have come into question. Similarly, basketball is a contact sport that lacks preventative gear. Sophomore varsity basketball player Olivia Randazzo suffered from a concussion in the beginning of the season, explaining that she had contact with another player at practice where she hit her head and then fell during a game the next day, feeling immediately light-headed and dizzy. After finishing off the game, she went to Borek to explain her symptoms.
For all athletes, there is a “return-to-learn” and “return-to-play” mandatory process after receiving a concussion. The former requires step-by-step directions to get back into school, starting with a day or two at home and slowly completing half and full days at school. The return-to-play process follows after the athlete is back in school, beginning with light exercise. Usually, the athlete recovers in about a week and is ready for practice and games once again.
When asked if these headbands or similar gear might be implemented in other sports, Anderson says that although he is unsure if that will result in more preventative gear, the administration is always looking for ways to make CHS sports safer.
“I think we have proven to be pretty aggressive in this realm because safety is our priority, whether we are popular when we do it or not,” says the athletic director.
While they may not be used at CHS just yet, more and more products from brands like Unequal are being utilized in sports such as baseball, football and snow sports to combat the likeliness of concussions.