Concerns about concussion have many people worried about safety in youth sports. Football's always an easy target because big hits have been part of the culture for decades.
Washington has led the way when it comes to addressing the concerns around concussions. In 2009, the state passed the first return-to-play law in the country, requiring youth athletes be removed form play if a concussion is suspected. https://www.cdc.gov/media/subtopic/matte/pdf/031210-Zack-story.pdf
In addition to awareness, there are other steps being taken to make the sport safer and protect athletes brains.
Inside the lab at VICIS https://vicis.co/ in Seattle, teams are building a helmet they say can reduce the risk of a concussion on the football field. Dr. Sam Browd is a pediatric neurosurgeon with Seattle Children's Hospital. He's also the co-founder of VICIS and says the entire reason VICIS got started was to help kids.
Engineers at VICIS have designed the Zero1 helmet to redistribute the rotational force of a big hit to the head. Dr. Browd says "most people think linear force, but it’s really rotational force that causes the majority of concussions." He says a reflex layer inside the helmet is what sets it apart from other helmets on the market because the columns inside the helmet bend and move omnidirectionally to absorb the force.
Currently, 65 players in the NFL are wearing the VICIS helmet, including Seahawks Doug Baldwin and Russell Wilson. The helmet costs $1500 each which is why Dr. Browd says the company is working to develop a less expensive youth helmet they hope to make available in about 18 months.
"It’s very important to me that any kid who wants the helmet and any parents who wants their child in a helmet can get a zero-one", says Browd.
While equipment can help mitigate the risks of a concussion, new mouth guard technology is working to identify big hits. This season, players on the Spanaway High School football team are wearing mouth guard technology as part of a pilot program to track head injuries. Each mouth guard has a tiny computer inside that measures force and sends information back to the coaching staff on the sideline.
Bryan Streleski, Director of Athletics for the Bethell School District says the mouth guards are important, allowing the players and coaches to see the data and change their tackling techniques to keep athletes safe.
Some suggest another way to protect players heads is having athletic trainers on the sidelines. Rob Scheidegger is head athletic trainer for the University of Washington Huskies. He says at the college level, athletic trainers add an extra layer of protection, something he says isn't happening enough at the youth level.
Scheidegger says "Less than 40 percent of high schools, public high schools in Washington State have a full time athletic trainer and schools that have part time trainers, the only sport they can cover is varsity football. That’s one thing we’re falling short on.”
At this year's Apple Cup, the Huskies will be wearing stickers on their helmets in support of a "Safety in Football" Campaign. It's an effort to call attention to the need for athletic trainers on the sidelines for youth sports statewide. Scheidegger says they've "found that properly identifying concussions and making sure those athletes aren't returning to play until they've recovered from their injury has decreased the chances of some of the athletes having catastrophic events and these long effects you're seeing with these players in the NFL and down the road."
It's true, trainers, technology and equipment all play an important role in safety on the football field but maybe the most important component of all, is awareness.
Just ask Zack Lystedt. Ten years after suffering a devastating head injury during a junior high football game, Zack continues to be the driving force nationwide to change the culture of football. Zack's advice to anyone who plays with a concussion is simple, "If you're having any sign of 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."