Concussions have ruled the conversation around football for the better part of the last decade, but despite the growing awareness and regulations, numbers show they are only increasing, and not just in football, but in most high school sports.
In the early and mid-2000s, concussions started making real noise across the US when three former NFL players took their own lives and doctors diagnosed them with CTE, a degenerative brain disease associated with repeated head trauma.
It was the first time an NFL player had been diagnosed with CTE, so states became proactive and started passing laws known as Return to Play Act to protect kids in all sports. The laws set concussion education requirements for coaches and players and set limits for how long a player must stay out if they are diagnosed with a concussion.
Washington state became the first state to pass a Return to Play law in 2009, and by 2015, all 50 states and Washington D.C. had them in effect.
It was a big moment. Awareness about concussions was quickly increasing and people felt like progress was being made until a 2020 study from the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons came out showing the progress was not where many had hoped it would be.
“So, compared to where we were 10 years ago, we’re much better. But, we are still very, very far away from completely understanding concussions and on multiple levels,” said Dr. Dennis Cardone, co-director of NYU Langone Health’s Concussion Center in New York City.
NYU Langone Health’s Concussion Center is one of the leading institutions in concussion research in the United States.
That 2020 study from the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons showed between 2010 and 2017, concussions made up 22.5% of all high school injuries, but what surprised researchers are the sports they occurred in most.
In boys’ football, concussions comprised 25.2% of injuries, but in girls’ soccer, they were higher at 29.8%. And from 2014 to 2017, the rate and which concussions were occurring increased in six of the nine high school sports sampled, including football, soccer, volleyball, basketball, and baseball.
“We show there are differences between the brains of contact sport athletes and non-contact sport athletes,” said Dr. Yvonne Lui, vice chair of research at NYU Langone Health’s Radiology Department. “We’re trying to understand them now. So, concussion is difficult because you can’t take a sample of the brain.”
Some states are bolstering their requirements to further protect athletes. New York is currently considering a bill that would require all athletic trainers at the high school level to get licensed and not just certified. If it passes, it will make New York the 48th state in the country with such a requirement.
In other places, leagues have put bans on things like heading in soccer, or checking in hockey, until players are at least 13.
But coaches, doctors, and players know it is a tough issue to solve in sports that herald such a quality.