The Concussion Risk in High School Football

The science behind the statistics

Grantland.com published an insightful blog post,  “The Fragile Teenage Brain: An In-depth Look at Concussions in High School Football.” The post explains why teenage brains are so susceptible to injury and provides a glimpse into exactly what happens inside the brain during a concussion. It also provides an excellent explanation of how the head injury problem in football in the 1960s and early 1970s was addressed by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) standard, which established guidelines for sports equipment including football helmets.

The following excerpts from the article are especially revealing:

The compromises of helmet design help explain why there will be no quick technological fix for football concussions. Last October, Jeffrey Kutcher, chairman of the American Academy of Neurology’s sports section, told a committee of United States senators that all the current concussion prevention products being sold were largely useless. “I wish there was such a product (that could prevent concussions) on the market,” he said. “The simple truth is that no current helmet, mouth guard, headband, or other piece of equipment can significantly prevent concussions from occurring… Is extremely unlikely that helmets can prevent concussions the way they prevent skull fractures.” He went on to criticize numerous claims by helmet manufacturers suggesting otherwise, noting that even Riddell’s specialized anti-concussion helmet has only been shown to reduce the rate of concussions by 2.6%.

Coach Rollinson echoes the skeHigh school athletespticism. “Every year, we get more and more parents showing up with some fancy helmet and telling us that this is the one their kid has to use,” he says. “I’m sure they spent a lot of money on that helmet. I know it makes them feel better. So we always say, sure, your kid can use that helmet, but we have to do the fitting. And you know what happens? The helmet doesn’t fit. They spend $1000 on it because the manufacturer makes some crazy claim, but it’s way too big. And then when you fit it properly, the kid says it’s too tight, that it’s not comfortable anymore. But that’s the way it needs to be.

This is a recurring theme among the coaches and trainers at Mater Dei. According to the football staff, the most important helmet factor has little to do with the helmet itself. Instead, it has to do with the way the helmet fits the head. In theory, this is an easy problem to solve: Every NOCSAE approved helmet is fully adjustable. Teenagers, however make the fitting process surprisingly difficult. “Most of the time, the problem is forgetfulness,” says Fernandez. “That’s why we are always reminding the players to check air levels. We tell them that before every single game. But sometimes they leave it loose on purpose, just because he can get hot and sticky in there.”