When it comes to the growing concern over concussions in sport, one Winnipeg school division is putting its money where its students’ heads are.
Seven Oaks has hired a local athletic therapy firm to have spotters attend all high school football, hockey, lacrosse and rugby games played by its school teams, beginning this fall. It’s believed to be the first such initiative in Manitoba.
And Seven Oaks officials have initiated a city-wide education effort they are distributing to parents, coaches and athletes in Winnipeg’s six other school divisions. The program includes fact sheets and guidelines for symptoms and treatment of head trauma, along with an online course.
“We’re just trying to raise the standard level across the board,” Seven Oaks superintendent Brian O’Leary says. “We’re wanting just a higher level of awareness and caution around concussions.
“It will become part of the way we do business in the future. If everybody’s more aware and conscious of (brain injury), it just changes the culture around those contact sports.”
The debate and prevention issues surrounding concussions in sport have rocketed to the fore in the last decade, after the release of studies documenting evidence of cumulative, long-term, disabling damage in the brains of deceased pro athletes.
Last week, a study published in the medical journal JAMA found chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in 99 per cent of deceased NFL players’ brains donated for scientific research by their families. Symptoms of CTE include memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, aggression, depression, anxiety, impulse control issues and sometimes suicidal behaviour.
Out of the 202 brains of deceased former football players in the JAMA study — which also included high school and college players — researchers diagnosed CTE in 177. The neurodegenerative disease was identified in 110 out of 111 former NFL players and found in three of the 14 high school players and 48 of the 53 college players.
Meanwhile in Canada, a 2013 study of children and teens participating in team sports found hockey accounted for half of all brain injuries.
The study looked at almost 13,000 injured children between the ages of five and 19 from 1990 to 2009, using data from the Canadian Hospitals Injury Reporting and Prevention Program, which tracks visits to emergency rooms at 11 pediatric hospitals and three general hospitals across the country.
More than 80 per cent of children and teens with brain injuries were male, and the average age was 13.
Seven Oaks’ program will cost less than $20,000 annually, based on paying $50 an hour for certified therapists to attend games, O’Leary estimates.
“It’s not huge costs,” he says, adding Seven Oaks trustees believe the growing concern about the long-term consequences of head injuries necessitates the initiative.
Similar protocols are already in place for games played in Winnipeg Minor Hockey, Soccer Manitoba, Football Manitoba, Baseball Manitoba and Rugby Manitoba leagues.
“Our problem was our coaches are really focused on a game during the game,” O’Leary says. “They’re probably counting whether there’s 12 kids on the field, rather than “is one of them coming off (the field) looking wobbly.
“You’re not going to catch every collision and every potential injury,” he added. “It’s not an absolute, but it’s an extra precaution we hope makes a difference.”
The company hired by Seven Oaks, NRG Athletes Therapy Fitness, began sending its four therapists to monitor Winnipeg High School Football League games involving the Maples, West Kildonan and Garden City teams.
Two concussions were diagnosed in a single game last week, says NRG owner Scott Miller.
NRG is located inside the new Seven Oaks Sportsplex. Miller is expecting delivery any day now of a $30,000 customized mobile trailer.
“It’s like a medical clinic on wheels, on site, ” he says. “I think this is huge for the athletes and also the division to take this first step in the right direction. I foresee this being a very common trend among other school divisions in the near future.”
While some high school teams have previously hired athletic therapists on their own, the practice has not been widespread.