Pearl-Cohn High School’s Tony Brunetti knows that concussions are an unfortunate part of the game he loves, and like most, the reigning Class 4A runner-up football coach doesn’t have a way to rid the sport of the traumatic brain injuries.
Are concussions becoming more frequent in sports, or are we just now starting to pay attention to them? Could and should the game be made less violent? Is better equipment the answer? Is education?
Brunetti, who has taught and coached at Pearl-Cohn since 2002, spending the last decade as head football coach, doesn’t have a definitive answers to any of these questions.
He does, however, know that he doesn’t want to lose the game he’s spent most of his life around.
“I know some are trying to make the game safer, pushing for flag football,” Brunetti said. “I just look at how much opportunity this game brings the kids. The kids know it’s a risk playing this game; they play this game for the opportunities it can bring them in life. It can mean a free education.
“You have to take the precautions and do the best job you can to make safe for them, now and in the future.”
The concussion issue is once again being brought to center stage as the film “Concussion,” which enters theaters on Christmas, tells the story of Dr. Bennett Omalu’s attempt to bring attention to chronic traumatic encephalopathy in football and the National Football League’s alleged attempts to deny the problem and disparage Omalu.
“I just finished my 19th year of coaching,” Independence High School coach Scott Blade said. “You see the evolution of awareness. I think when lawsuits were brought to the NFL and all the issues with former players, all that stuff has a trickle-down effect.”
In July 2010, the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association adopted a new, more stringent policy aimed at educating coaches, parents and athletes about concussions, as well as preventing them, particularly second-impact syndrome — a sometimes fatal occurrence when an athlete suffers a second concussion before the first has properly healed.
“We certainly fed off what some other states had in place or were working on,” TSSAA Assistant Executive Director Matthew Gillespie said.
The TSSAA’s policy states any player who exhibits signs, symptoms or behavior consistent with a concussion (such as headaches, dizziness, nausea, confusion or loss of consciousness) must be immediately removed from competition. They are not allowed to return until cleared by a licensed medical doctor, osteopathic physician or clinical neuropsychologist with concussion training.
In other words, once an athlete leaves the contest with a suspected concussion, nobody on the sideline can clear them to return.
“They’ve taken it out of the coach’s hands in the heat of the moment,” Blade said. “If there’s a possibility (of a concussion), we get it looked at and addressed by someone that’s trained for that.”
The TSSAA has since implemented additional changes, such as limiting contact during practice, preventing targeting and putting an emphasis on proper blocking and tackling technique.
In March 2013, Tennessee became the 44th state to pass legislation to reduce concussions in youth sports and increase awareness of concussions.
“Our policy only affected our member schools,” Gillespie said. “What they did was take that and expand it to non-member schools and youth leagues and things that we don’t oversee with our policy.”
The law, which took effect Jan. 1, 2014, essentially mirrored what the TSSAA implemented for the 2010-11 school year, requiring all non-TSSAA schools and youth leagues to adhere to the same guidelines.
“The awareness is definitely out there,” said Corey Allen, program director for the Nashville Youth Basketball Association and a former Whites Creek and Tennessee basketball player. “We’re dealing with kids from 5 years old, so if there’s a situation where something happens you are extremely cautious. We have protocol and procedures.”
That’s not the case everywhere, according to Johnnie Anderson, director of sports medicine for Sumner County Schools and the Middle Tennessee representative for the Tennessee Athletic Trainers Society, the state athletic trainers association that supported the law.
“I think definitely at the high school level there’s better education for coaches and student-athletes, but I’m not sure that’s being carried over to the other levels, educating youth leagues,” Anderson said. “I think that’s where there’s kind of still a gap.”
The lack of a central organization has made it virtually impossible to make sure every youth sports league in the state adheres to the laws guidelines.
“Where I’m at, Gallatin High School, all of our coaches are required to do the annual education or they’re not allowed to coach, and we have a state law and a school board policy that affords us the luxury to do that,” Anderson added. “But little league in fill-in-the-blank town, they’re not regulated by the same organization. I’m not sure (the people that run the leagues) understand the requirements that are there for them.”