To better understand the dilemma high school athletes must confront regarding concussions, consider Sandia Matadors running back D.J. Hayden’s response to a question recently put to him.
What would he do, he was asked hypothetically, if the Matadors were in a crucial game late in the season and one of his football teammates – one of his friends – was exhibiting signs of a concussion following a collision, and only he seemed to notice a problem?
The protocol says Hayden should go straight to his head coach, Kevin Barker, or to a Sandia trainer and report it in the best interest of his getting the teammate off the field and examined.
The reality for student-athletes like Hayden, however, is far more complex.
“It’s kind of tough,” Hayden admitted. “I want my teammate to be OK. But if he wants to play, I don’t want to get in the way of that.”
And right there, you have just one example of the quandary athletes have in policing themselves and their teammates.
This scenario is part of an online course starting this school year that all New Mexico high school athletes must take in order to be eligible.
“I think anything to keep kids safe, whether it’s concussions, whether it’s CPR, whether it’s first aid … anything to keep kids safe for their future is needed and valuable,” said New Mexico Activities Association executive director Sally Marquez.
As of July 1 of this year, coaches are no longer the only people at a high school required to have educational background on concussions. New Mexico Senate Bill 38 forces prep athletes in every sport to complete an online course. If they don’t, they can’t play.
“It puts into reality the risks you take every time you play this sport,” said Volcano Vista senior linebacker Joren Dickey.
It’s the law
The passage of Senate Bill 38 during this year’s Legislative session makes it mandatory for any athlete in grades 6-12 to complete this course – which is delivered through the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) – before they are permitted to compete in an official practice or game.
Football players were required to complete the course before July 31. For the athletes in volleyball, soccer and cross country, it was Aug. 7.
The free course, which takes about 30-40 minutes to complete, goes into great detail about the short- and long-term implications of a brain injury, and also how to help student-athletes recognize the signs and symptoms of a concussion, either in themselves or in teammates.
There are a handful of short video presentations by medical personnel during the course, some mock Twitter exchanges among students as they discuss just what a concussion is and how to recognize the symptoms, and also what steps to take to report one.
Near the end of the video, there is a 10-question test.
“There is definitely information in there that you need to know as an athlete,” said Albuquerque Academy goalkeeper Lucas Schlenzig, who missed some time last season with the Chargers after suffering a concussion when he was kicked in the face.
“A lot of people think once the concussion happens you feel dizzy, you throw up, you have all these symptoms and then you’re good after three days,” Schlenzig said. “My recovery was three weeks long.”
In his case, there was a two-week period, he said, when he wasn’t allowed to go outside, watch television or even use his cell phone. The online course also mentions that the Internet, reading and video games should also be prohibited during the concussion protocol rehab process.
“That stimulates the brain too much,” Schlenzig said.
One of the recurring themes in the online course, which a Journal reporter took, is a strong encouragement to report to a coach, trainer or parent if they think either they – or more importantly a teammate – might have suffered a concussion. This is largely because many athletes are either unaware they might have one, or they might not want to report on themselves at the risk of missing critical game time.
“We need to make sure the student athletes know that you’re protecting your friend,” said the NMAA’s Marquez.
Hayden said for a veteran football player, even one like himself who has never had a concussion, the course didn’t teach him anything that he didn’t already know.
“I’ve been in this sport all my life,” he said. “It was nothing new.”
But that was not the universal response.
“I didn’t really learn anything from (the course), but a lot of my teammates and I have been talking about the course, and a lot of them did not know the signs and symptoms,” said Cleveland High School girls soccer goalkeeper Gabby Garcia, who has suffered a pair of concussions in her prep career – one in rubgy, the other in soccer.
The course makes very clear that suffering a second brain injury right on top of an unreported first concussion could prove extremely detrimental to the athlete’s health.
“In the heat of the moment, you have to police yourself,” said the Hawks’ Dickey, who hopes to play football in college and said he wouldn’t object if a teammate intervened to get him off the field if necessary. “Personally, I have a lot more riding on it than high school (ball). You’d rather lose a guy for a couple of weeks than lose his entire career over it.”
Athletic directors at all NMAA member schools will have to ensure that both coaches and athletes have a course completion certificate on file. When the course is completed, the athlete can print out a certificate to verify their participation.
This is the latest Legislative measure regarding concussions in New Mexico.
Last year, the state extended the concussion protocol absence for athletes from a minimum of seven days to a minimum of 240 hours (or 10 days). All school districts are required to develop head injury protocols, and those districts are further mandated to inform both athletes and their parents of the potential risks of head injuries in sports.
For the past few years, parents or guardians of athletes have had to sign a fact sheet on concussions, delivered to their coach or athletic director, as part of their physical.
“I think we learned what to look for,” said Tom Barton, a Volcano Vista football parent who has seen both his sons battle concussions. He thought the efforts of the state to help parents become more educated on the issue of concussions is much needed. “Especially in a contact sport,” he said.
Albuquerque Public Schools AD Ken Barreras said APS parents have had to sign concussion fact sheets since 2010. Those sheets lay out the signs and symptoms of a concussion, observed both from the athlete’s point of view and the parent/guardian, plus how to proceed if a parent believes his/her child, or any child, has suffered a concussion in competition.
“Anytime it’s your own child and have first-hand experience, you realize you’re a little bit more focused,” said Melinda Garcia, the mother of Cleveland’s Gabby. “And you’re looking for those indicators yourself.”
Although New Mexico does not require it, Marquez said most state associations require CPR training for both coaches and students, and said that she thought New Mexico, which at present only asks coaches to know to administer first aid, will join that list soon.