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Concussion concerns: Changing the culture of football

SEATTLE — Football is part of American culture. In fact, man of you will probably be watching games this weekend.

But some wonder if the culture of football is getting in the way of safety.

There are lots of reasons why we love sports and want our kids to participate — camaraderie, competition, hard work. And being part of a team.

But the risk of concussions has some concerned about safety. Recently, we brought together a group of people to talk about concussions in youth sports. And while head injuries can happen in any sport, we spent most of our time talking about football.

On the sideline in Bellevue, junior varsity head coach Hugh Gladner calls the plays.

But as parents watch from the stands, Gladner knows his biggest battle isn’t the scoreboard -- it's safety.

“You always worry," said mom Joni Scalzo, whose daughter plays football. "You hear about it happening to someone else’s kid and you don’t think it’s going to happen to your kid.”

Like so many parents, concussions are on the mind of Scalzo.

“She’s got to be an advocate for herself, I’m not there all the time.”

But expecting kids to self-report a head injury is easier said than done.

Big hits on the football field have been part of the sport for decades. And since those hits aren’t going away, risks of repeated concussions remain.

“The reason why football has been a problem for years is the culture around being tough and playing through these injuries rather than identifying when someone is at risk of something happening and reporting those symptoms," said Rob Scheidegger, head football athletic trainer at the University of Washington.

Scheidegger was part of a panel of experts and parents we brought together to talk about safety in youth sports and the risk of concussions.

A risk big enough, that parent Ian Olsen and his wife, Julie, keep their two boys off the football field.

“All that I see is and all the news that comes to me is enough to startle me and rather play it safe," Ian Olsen said. "So we’re in another sport that I think there’s enough banging to get the bugs out and that doesn’t give me the concern that football does.”

And part of that concern surrounds the culture of football. And a mentality to tough out injuries, especially when it comes to the head.

“That’s the jersey Zack was wearing when he was hurt."

Victor Lystedt is a father doing what he can to change football culture. In 2006, his son Zack got a concussion during a junior high football game.
Zack went back into the game and suffered another hit to the head that nearly cost him his life.

In 2009, Washington passed the Zack Lystedt law, requiring youth athletes in any sport be removed from play if a concussion is suspected.
They can’t return until cleared by a medical professional.

Dr. Sam Browd is a pediatric neurosurgeon at Seattle Children's Hospital.

"The science of a concussion is very young. We've really only started to pay attention to this in the last 5-10 years. We know the brain is continuing to develop even into your early 30s," Browd said.

How many questions can an athlete have before he or she should stop playing?

"We start to get very concerned certainly after multiple concussions and for me in my practice, that's three or more. People have varied opinions around that, but as I start to have a conversation with youth athletes, after they've had three concussions in the same sport, is it the way that you're playing and start to delve into it a lot more," Browd said.

Do you remember coaches talking to you about concussions?

"No, not at all. That didn't exist."

Victor Lystedt said, "We didn't talk about concussion. We didn't know they existed the way they exist today."

His son Zack now lives with the results of a severe brain injury. And his advice to young athletes is always the same.

"If you're having any sign or symptom or you think you're having a sign or symptom, sit it out. It's not worth the rest of your life. It's not worth dying over. It's not worth being injured over. It's not worth any of that."

The Lystedt law has made an impact.

More concussions are being reported nationwide in youth sports, including football.

But too many times, we're relying on the athletes to report a head injury.

Scheidegger says that's one of the biggest battles he faces.

"The best way of identifying injuries is having athletes tell us their symptoms and that's the worst thing we can use to evaluate these injuries because at our level, many of our athletes do not want to report their injuries because they know we have a great medical team in place that will remove those athletes from play and they're educated about that. And so if they're able to hide their symptoms, sometimes they will."

He says real culture change starts with the coach.

"Players listen to their coaches, so if the trainer educates the coaches and the coaches are the ones giving that message out, it means more to the athletes. It resonates more with them. They know that's the culture of the team. I think that goes a long way in creating an environment where athletes are reporting their symptoms instead of playing tough with them."

One coach who has made safety part of his team's culture is Bellevue's junior varsity coach Gladner

"One concussion is OK. Second concussion, you're done for the year. And then after that, it's whether you play the following year if you choose to play the following year. It's a well-documented ... but ultimately it's a family decision and a doctor."

Gladner added, "You don't need to be a hero. Your safety comes first, and you have to be your own best advocate and to let us know."

It's still not enough for parents like Ian Olsen to shake the fear that it comes to his boys and football.

Asked if there is anything that can sway his decision to let his sons play football, Olsen said, "I don't know. I hope they don't push me hard. I think I'm still where I was when I walked in."

The one thing everyone on our panel agreed on was that parents have to have a conversation with coaching staff before a season starts.. And that goes for all sports. Ask about concussion protocol. Find out the steps the team, the school and the district is taking to keep athletes safe -- and speak up -- because keeping kids safe means every one of us has to advocate for safety.