Concerns about football concussions have been well known for years now; there was even a Hollywood movie about it. However, no oversight agency in Wisconsin tracks non-catastrophic high school football concussions in a systematic fashion, and many state school districts make it exceptionally difficult – even impossible – for someone to learn the number of high school football sports injuries on their own, a three-month Media Milwaukee investigation found.
How many high school football players suffered concussions and sports injuries in Wisconsin last year and, as to the latter, which kind? No one knows for sure, and, when Media Milwaukee set out to compile the data itself, many administrators and athletic directors simply refused to say, often not responding to open records requests at all, which is a violation of state laws regulating the public’s right to know.
At the same time, a few state districts – ranging from Whitefish Bay to Pardeeville – were extremely transparent, even providing the student journalists with detailed sports injury and concussion data, with some breaking numbers down in pie charts and waiving open records fees. The numbers that were provided indicate there is a concern worth studying: Seven of the schools districts that responded had double digit numbers of injuries.
Here’s how a few school districts handled the open records request with expediency and detail. Pardeeville School District responded by December 14, “We had a total of 19 concussions, suffered by students (2) and student athletes (15)…12 concussions occurred in football players – 1 variety – 4 middle school – 7 JV – football days missed ranged from 6-30 with an average of 16 days missed…all occurred in a game.” The letter then proceeded to provide even more additional data. “Good luck with your work,” concluded Principal Jack Hammer. Jefferson School District was similarly responsive, reporting these high school football injury numbers: “Fracture/Dislocation = 6; Tendons/Ligaments = 21; Concussion = 16; Strain = 15; Soft Tissue = 4.”
Whitefish Bay School District sent a document for each of the past three years that contained detailed pie charts and other data. In 2016, there were 23 concussions, representing 20.8 percent of the injury whole. Here’s the document for 2016:
At the other extreme, though, students were accused of “threats” for simply filing professional open records requests asking for sports injury numbers and other general concussion-related information, were completely ignored, or were told school officials were “too busy” to comply with the law. Some districts admitted they don’t have records containing the numbers. You might think that larger districts would have a quicker and better handle on the numbers because their tracking systems are more sophisticated. Think again. The state’s largest district, Milwaukee Public Schools, has yet to provide the numbers, indicating the numbers are not centrally tracked, and even claimed the numbers are not subject to open records laws.
Most districts just didn’t bother to answer the open records requests at all.
All of this has left the topic clouded with uncertainty and lack of clarity at a time when the impact of concussions especially on formative brains is of increasing concern.
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C. told Media Milwaukee, “At a time when concussions among athletes are a known public-health issue of great…importance, it would be a dereliction of duty for any educational institution not to keep count of such incidents.”
Out of the more than 200 school districts that were emailed open records requests by Media Milwaukee in November 2016, by the end of December, only 68 had provided a response at all and, of those, only 19 offered up actual concussion or high school football injury numbers. In all, almost 70 percent of the districts contacted failed to provide any response, even though state law requires that written open records requests, as the students sent, mandate response as soon as practical and without delay. Even if requests are denied, districts are required to provide detailed statutory exemptions for doing so. Most did not.
Specifically, when it comes to numbers, the students asked for: “The number of player injuries for each of the last three years for each of your high school football teams broken down by type of injury and school. Please include both JV and Varsity numbers.” The districts were also asked for: “Any specific concussion related data you have for the above teams, such as: severity, frequency, lingering symptoms, and practice/game time missed. We recognize that you cannot provide student names and we are not seeking them; however, we are seeking aggregate data that is not identifying but sheds light on the scope of this extremely important issue.” The students also asked for general information, such as helmet used and about things like concussion protocols.
When districts did not respond, follow-up emails were sent in many cases that said the students were willing to accept only the concussion and injury numbers. In most cases, those were also ignored.
Specific findings revealed:
- Some School Districts did provide records and numbers, including Whitefish Bay, Hartland Arrowhead, and Jefferson. Other districts that did not respond range from Dodgeville to Cambridge. Some districts, like Milwaukee Public Schools, responded but have not provided the numbers to date.
- Responses ranged from solid injury numbers to acknowledgement of receiving the e-mail or phone calls but no records being provided, to districts that said they were “too busy” or the request was “unethical,” to districts not answering the records requests in any form.
- The number of schools that told the students they do not keep records or chose not to answer that particular question was 65/218 or 29 percent.
- Wisconsin law does not state that athletes diagnosed with a certain number of concussions can no longer participate. The WIAA says that the appropriate health care provider would provide that advice.
- Injury numbers provided ranged from 114 total injuries to 0.
- Districts handled this question very inconsistently.
- Other than catastrophic data, there is no central collection point.
- School districts that did respond wildly diverged on whether the law mandated release and on the cost of records if they responded at all (from 0 to almost $2,000).
- Some of the districts said they didn’t even the keep the records at all.
- The schools all had written protocols on how concussions are handled and all claimed they do concussion tests. Their websites varied as to how much information is presented. However, whether they use the ImPACT test to assess player concussion varied. Although many state school districts use this test, MPS did not, and MPS PR did not respond to a question asking why. (ImPACT’s website describes it as “the most widely used and most scientifically validated computerized concussion management tool available.”)
- Per the WIAA website, a school is not required to have a written concussion program.
- Some school districts argued that medical and student privacy laws mean they can’t release aggregate numbers on sports injuries and concussions. However, a top student journalism advocate denies this. And, a News 8 investigative report found that one conference was collecting the data, saying: “High schools in the Mississippi Valley Conference recently started keeping computerized records on the number of athlete concussions. Here’s a breakdown of the numbers from the 2014-15 school year: La Crosse Logan – 14; La Crosse Central -16; Aquinas – 10; Onalaska – 18; Sparta – 30; Tomah – 33; West Salem – 20; Holmen – Unavailable at this time.”
Milwaukee Public Schools’ PR office and athletics officials sent a student journalist on a dizzying effort to obtain the information, sending her from person-to-person. At one point, MPS even wrote of the number of concussions: “This information request does not fall within the legal definition of open records.” The student asked – to no avail – for any documents containing the number. As the initial open records request also had asked for more information than concussions numbers, the student also asked for the aggregate number of concussions only to simply be provided in an interview as an alternative, thinking that a large school district such as MPS should simply know the number of concussions, if it’s tracking the concern in a centralized manner. Could MPS not just say publicly what the number is?
MPS PR staff refused to provide the number. When MPS PR was asked point blank whether the district even tracks the number of concussions as a whole, officials also did not answer that question, either. This story will be updated if and when MPS provides any numbers. MPS did answer the more general questions:
When the student asked in an open records request for “the number of football concussions for the last school year for each MPS school,” though, she was told, “This is current information and not an actual record.” MPS accused the student journalist of causing the delay herself by changing her request several times. However, the student had simply narrowed the request in the hopes that MPS could provide at least the concussions number before publication of this story, since the district is so much larger than others.
“Please realize that our district is much larger than other Wisconsin school districts. We have 160 schools and not all of the information/records that you have requested are stored centrally,” the MPS response acknowledged. To date, MPS has not provided the number of concussions. MPS stressed the open records request was not being denied.
In contrast, here’s how the Jefferson School District handled it:
Link to it (https://www.scribd.com/document/334904128/Ltr-Voet-Dec-22-2016)
Some say that Wisconsin school districts have made great progress in recent years in how they deal with concussions. Indeed, their websites are generally replete with general concussion information for parents and written protocols to play. The state Department of Public Instruction also has a detailed informational page on concussions, and there have been changes to state law.
DPI does post guidelines that urge districts to remove players from the field if a concussion is suspected, although with other detailed recommendations. Thus, the topic is clearly on the radar screen.
No one’s Tracking the Numbers
The hunt for a statewide concussions and injuries number starts with the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, the oversight body for high school sports in the state.
According to Todd Clark, Director of Communications at the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, high schools do not report their team’s injuries (and concussions) to the WIAA. The research by student reporters at Media Milwaukee indicates that there is no requirement for schools to collect or report any injury or concussion data, unless the injury is defined as “catastrophic” (which few are.) The agency that tracks the catastrophic figures did not respond to requests for comment. However, catastrophic injuries are a small fraction of the whole.
“Some schools may or may not report them to WIAA,” says Clark. “Only in the case of a catastrophic injuries, typically not concussions and in that case, the WIAA would report it to the NFSH (National Federation of state High School Associations).”
Clark says that somebody dying, breaking their neck or becoming paralyzed would merit as a “catastrophic injury.”
“The Department of Public Instruction does not collect information on the number of student concussions that occur in a district,” said Bette Carr, school nursing and health services consultant for DPI. “However, it may be that a district collects that information independently for their own data. There is no one in the state that I am aware of that is collecting that information statewide.”
Some outside researchers have attempted to identify the scope of the problem. The University of Wisconsin in Madison has been conducting studies on the topic over the years. One of the leaders of the study, Dr. Tim McGuine, told Media Milwaukee the researchers have found that only 9 percent of football players have suffered a concussion over the past few years. He also said that the reason many schools didn’t respond may be because they felt either the questions are too broad or felt as though they are not required to keep records of these types of injuries. However, as noted, open records laws require a written response even if a records request is denied.
Upon speaking with McGuine, he mentioned that football is not the only sport where a high school athlete is at risk of sustaining a concussion. He said high school athletes are just as much at risk (if not more) when they play sports like soccer or rugby or even go out for cheerleading. McGuine also believes that most media outlets and parents use football as the focal point for concussions and often ignore sports that could be more dangerous.
“If you don’t want your son to play football,” said McGuine, “Why would you EVER let your daughter play soccer?”
It is true that football is not the only sport you can sustain a concussion. You can sustain one from any sport. McGuine has recently gotten more feedback on concussions from sports other than football. He even believes that high school students are more at risk in the long term from ankle injuries and other lower area injuries rather than concussion (the Media Milwaukee requests sought all injury data for this reason, in addition to concussion numbers).
“Schools (especially Wisconsin high schools) around the country are doing a far better job in terms of prevention and being on the forefront in terms of a concussions,” added McGuine.
He also mentioned that high school students don’t tend to show symptoms as often as one would think.
Not everyone was so willing to talk.
When schools failed to respond to the Media Milwaukee inquiries, the student journalists sent this follow-up email, although with a forward of the original:
Just following up with the email below. We are nearing the completion of our project and have received data sets from multiple schools across the state. If you could provide the information below, it would be greatly appreciated. If not, we will list your district as one who did not provide a response to our inquiries. At the very least, please provide the number of injuries/concussions.
Thank you in advance.
This email upset one school athletic director, who wrote back to the student journalist, “I also find your threatening approach to be very off-putting. At a time when respect for the media and trust in reporters is at an all-time low, I would recommend an approach of mutual respect and trust. I am proud of the great relationship that I have with our local media outlets… but maybe things are, unfortunately, different in Milwaukee.”
According to Wisconsin law, when a written open records request is received “Response must be provided as soon “as practicable and without delay.”
“If a response cannot be provided within 10 working days, it is DOJ’s practice to send a communication indicating that a response is being prepared,” said the state Department of Justice compliance guide on open records laws.
“The records custodian has two choices: comply or deny,” and “Reasons for denial must be specific and sufficient.”
The student journalists sent email open records requests simply because of the sheer number of districts involved. Email requests are valid under open records laws in Wisconsin. The student journalists also made phone calls and conducted in-person interviews in some cases.
Thomas McCarthy, the top PR official at DPI, said he couldn’t provide legal advice. However, he said, “If a record exists within a public school or district and it contains data which does not personally identify a student (FERPA rules) or a student’s health records (HIPAA rules), it is generally required to be made available upon request.”
Clark, Carr, and McCarthy responded quickly and helpfully to requests. Some districts that responded cited the student privacy and health laws in refusing to release the number.
For example, Sun Prairie School District responded: “I do not have a document in my office that lists all student athlete injuries for the past three years that is broken down by specific injury/sport. Our students do not sign releases for their medical information to be released.”
Some school districts felt like they weren’t obligated under open records law to respond to the request. The Sheboygan Falls School District responded with the following: “After reviewing your ‘records request’ the District has also determined that a significant portion of your ‘records request’ constitutes a “request for information” that the District is not obligated to respond to under the Public Records Law. Inasmuch as records do not exist that are responsive to your request, the District is electing not to respond to your request.”
The District likely was referring to generalized information requested by the students in addition to injury numbers. The District did provide the following documents: “The District’s protocols for addressing post-concussion participation by student athletes, 2016-2017 Co-Curricular Code – Containing the District’s rules/regulations pertaining to School Activities and Organizations, including specifically the portion relating to athletic injuries, and athletic Participation Waiver/Agreement.”
The immediate pattern the student journalists noticed was the sheer inconsistency of injury data that was being collected across the state. Some schools would reply with data accompanied with sharp details and statistics while others did not.
Another district that was fully cooperative was the Hartland Arrowhead Union District in southeastern Wisconsin. Not only did the district respond to each of the inquiries, but they provided additional documents to support the research.
Laura Myrah, Superintendent of the district, also provided injuries dating back to 2014 with injuries detailing to each body part.
LoMonte, the Executive Director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Virginia, says aggregate numbers of this sort do not fall under FERPA and HIPAA exemptions. Simply put: He believes the other school districts are violating open records laws by refusing to release the numbers (even more egregiously, some just did not bother to respond to the requests at all.)
In an email, LoMonte told Media Milwaukee, “Any record belonging to a government agency is accessible to the public unless some specific exemption applies. There is no exemption covering data or numbers about injuries to students.”
LoMonte added: “So if a school has records reflecting that three or 10 or 30 students were treated for concussions over a particular period of time, they must legally turn over those records,” before concluding with “if they’re not bothering to count them, then the public ought to (be) asking serious questions about whether that school or that district cares about safety.”
The ‘Thrill of Competition’
In the eyes of some, high school sports are seen as the pinnacle of the things that make sports great: players playing for the love of the game, sportsmanship, teamwork. These are the things that high school sports represent.
Memory loss and headaches, on the other hand, are not supposed to be what high school sports are all about.
Sam Lemery, in that regard, had a little bit of a different experience. At just 20-years-old, he has a lingering thought unusual for someone his age: What will his memory be like if in 20 years, the seven concussions begin to take a toll on his health in a similar way that has devastated so many former football players before him?
Sitting in his Appleton apartment with a PS3 controller in his hands, striking out virtual batter after virtual batter, Lemery shows a striking difference to the player who roamed the sidelines and battled opponents on Friday nights three years ago. What was once a clean shaven look is now replaced by a thick beard. He talks of trainers having to hide his helmet to prevent him from returning to games and concussion tests with a calmness that is frankly unexpected. While he solemnly reflects on his own troubles from his playing days, one can gather that he is truly grateful for the positive things that the game has given him.
When asked if he would allow a future son his to play despite his own experiences with concussions, Lemery said, “Absolutely… With the way coaches and trainers are taking concussions more seriously and not rushing players back into games, I don’t think there is any reason that I would deny my kid from playing football.”
While some players expressed dismay about how their schools handled the problems of concussions, others were satisfied with their school’s handling of the situation. Colton Nieman, a Wisconsin Rapids native who played football at Lincoln High School, suffered a concussion during his senior season and sat out the final two games of the year due to it.
Nieman said that the concussion occurred the Wednesday before a Friday night game at practice. He said he hid his symptoms because he wanted to play against the school’s biggest rival, Stevens Point, that Friday night.
However, when the game started, trainers immediately knew something was wrong. Nieman kept blowing coverages on defense and the symptoms he was hiding earlier that week in practice had become much more noticeable. Once it was clear he was woozy, he was immediately taken out. He was then required to pass a five-day concussion protocol in order to play again, which ultimately kept him sidelined the remainder of the season.
Nieman expressed approval at how Lincoln’s training staff approached the situation.
“I honestly think they did a pretty good job,” said Nieman. “Although I missed the last two games of the season, I’m glad I did what I did. The 5-day protocol program was a great program to test me and did not allow me to put myself in any danger.”
Despite having suffered a concussion and knowing the risks of the sport, Nieman does not believe he will stop any future children of his from playing the game he loves.
“It needs to be a priority to be aware of symptoms and number of concussions an athlete receives no matter the sport,” said Nieman. “However, I would not prevent my future children from participating in the sport that I, along with many others, love. To an extent, the thrill of competition trumps the dangers of concussions.
The Science of Concussions
Jason Lowry MD, medical advisor for Rhinelander High School, spoke in great detail to Media Milwaukee on high school students who suffer concussions and how they handle them. He provided a definition on what a concussion is. “The classic definition was a loss a consciousness…” said Lowry. “But now it has evolved into more subtle subjects…”
Some of those subjects include:
Lack of coordination
Light and Noise Sensitivity
Short Term Memory Difficulty
Lowry also stressed the importance of having an athletic trainer in some capacity for every high school athletic staff. He mentioned a study that only 30 to 40 percent of high schools nationwide have an athletic trainer on their staff in some shape or form.
“Over half of the high schools in our country are playing football without an athletic trainer on the sidelines,” said Lowry. “That’s a big deal in my opinion.”
Lowry states that lack of trainers in high football is a “complex and historical issue.” Concussions could be a possible reason on why change is needed.
“Having an athletic trainer present for contact practices and games is quickly becoming a necessity,” said Lowry. “If not for medical reasons for a legal reasons.”
He went on to say that there have been lawsuits in other states (including California) regarding to high school students suffering concussions and the school did not have an athletic trainer on hand.
Wisconsin law has continued to evolve on the concussion question at least, although some believe it could go farther by, for example, mandating reporting of data to a statewide collection spot.
In a bill that was signed by Gov. Scott Walker in 2013, schools are required to removing an individual from a youth athletic activity if symptoms indicate a possible concussion has been sustained. However, for some, that was not the case. One former player, Dalton Smith, says that despite having numerous concussions, teammates of his were still allowed to play without officially passing any required concussion protocol by the WIAA.
A research study at the Medical College of Wisconsin done by Danny Thomas provides medical opinions on what a concussion is and the effects on the human brain. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 1.6 million to 3.8 million concussions occur each year.
The purpose of this study is to find out if strict rest for five days helps children get better after concussion. The study is being done on children and adults ranging from ages 11-22.
According to the Medical College, this research is being done because, currently, there is no effective treatment for concussions. Physical activity (for example; running, playing sports) and brain activity (for example; homework and tests) may make concussion symptoms worse.
According to this study, a concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury that interferes with normal brain function and causes temporary cognitive and physical problems. Concussions need medical evaluation, whether from a certified athletic trainer, sports medicine physician, primary care physician or emergency room physician. If concussions are not properly treated, complications can result, including permanent damage.
Concussions usually happen with an impact to the head or body — a blow, bump or jolt. Because of the sudden change of direction or speed, the brain continues to move while the rest of the head doesn’t. The result is a stretching of neurons and other microscopic damage to the brain
Milwaukee Public Schools
The attempts to find out Milwaukee Public Schools’ injuries data in detail – and concussion number in specific – were a case study when it comes to how tough it can be for the public to learn how its district is handling the question.
Within the Milwaukee Public School District (MPS) there were a total of 13 high schools with football teams, and a total of eight MPS Governance officials that were contacted with an open records request. Overall, 10 responses were received out of the 34 e-mails sent, some e-mails being sent to more than one person per school. From a total of 10 responses received from high schools and MPS governance, only three high schools responded directly, including: Rufus King High School, Casimir Pulaski High School, and South Division High School. The other seven responses came from MPS Governance officials.
The responses from Casimir Pulaski High School’s principal Lolita Patrick and Rufus King High School’s Athletic Director Jeremy Nichols both referred the student journalist to the Athletic Commissioner for the MPS District, William “Bill” Molbeck, while South Division High School Principal Jesus Santos referred her to MPS Governance.
After contacting both Molbeck and MPS Governance, the journalist received an e-mail response from a representative of the MPS Office of Board Governance, Martha Daleccio that her concern was forwarded to Chief Operations Office, Wendell Willis. Additional acknowledgment of the request came from Records Management Assistant, Brandi Williams. Williams responded with a document from MPS Board Policy Analyst Jill Kawala stating that: “After carefully considering the nature of your request, we have determined that portions of your request do not fall within the parameters of a public record.”
Williams then added that “The portion of your request that is being processed pursuant to public records law will likely not be available in the next few days.” Kawala lated stated: “The information/records that you have requested are not stored centrally.” In the essence of time the request was narrowed, asking simply for “The number of concussions in the last school year for each MPS school.” Williams responded only by stating she was withdrawing the first request and the request for “The number of football concussions for the last school year (academic 2015-2016) for each MPS school” will not be processed because “This information request does not fall within the legal definition of open records.”
After responding by asking why the request did not fall under open records laws no further response came from Williams.
Shortly after asking Williams why the request does not fall under open records laws, Board Policy Analyst Jill Kawala contacted the student journalist stating that they will not be providing the number of football injuries in the 2015-2016 school year stating: “Numbers are information. Information is not a record as defined by Wisconsin Public Record Law.”
The student journalist contacted Kawala and asserted that the number of injuries are in fact information that falls under open records law because “Numbers are information under the public records law if they are contained in a document kept by the district.” Kawala responded by saying that “The number of football concussions for the law school year for each MPS school is current information and not an actual record.” The student journalist and her instructor responded by clarifying any confusion by stating we are “not asking for ‘current’ numbers.” We responded by clarifying any confusion Kawala may have had as to what “last” school year meant, defining this as the previous fall 2015 through spring 2016 school year, which is not the “current” school year. This was understood by Brandi Williams. The student journalist has yet to hear back from Kawala.
Then the student contacted Bill Molbeck asking for an interview to ask for the number of concussions, in addition to other questions. He then directed her to MPS Media Relations Katie Cunningham and stated that he will work on the second portion of the request, which was for more generalized information. He stated that we should have received the first portion of the “information” request, which we did receive from Department Administrative Assistant Tracey Parrish. In other words, MPS eventually answered the more general questions but did not provide the detailed numbers or aggregate numbers.
The e-mail from Parrish included a document from MPS Chief Operations Officer Wendell Willis, which answered various of our questions about MPS District High School Football teams.
The student journalist requested an interview with MPS Media Relations Katie Cunningham or asked her to direct us to another person to speak with. The student had previously asked not only to interview Bill Molbeck, but also reached out to MPS District athletic directors and football coaches to talk to them about the topic of football injuries. She received responses only from Rufus King High School’s Athletic Director Jeremy Nichols, Rufus King football coach Thomas Wozniak, and Bill Molbeck, who all advised her to speak with MPS Governance Media Relations, the department that Katie Cunningham represents.
Cunningham responded to an interview request by saying: “What specific questions you have? I understand we have already responded to an open records request. What else would you like to know?” Our e-mail then said that the student journalist was asking for her to provide the total number of concussions suffered by MPS high school football players while playing in the 2015-2016 school year, why MPS does not use ImPACT tests, and how MPS documents and tracks the number of concussions suffered by MPS football players. Do they keep track of it? Yes or no. These were all “information” questions that went unanswered in the document from Wendell Willis, which is why we asked Cunningham to direct us to the right person. She further replied, “You can submit an open records request for that information through the Office of Board Governance,” which the student had already done without receiving the requested information.
Cunningham then stated that she will “Make our staff aware that you are no longer seeking to interview anyone,” which was never said or stated in any e-mail. The student responded saying that was not accurate, and that she was still seeking an interview. We have yet to hear back from Cunningham.
As of December 31, it’s not clear how many concussions or sports injuries were suffered by MPS high school football players.
A sharp contrast to MPS: Arrowhead, located in nearby Waukesha County.
Media Milwaukee went to Arrowhead High School to interview the school Activities Director Ryan Mangan. He was open and willing to talk. While waiting for the interview, a student came to the activities office to request a concussion form. The student was informed that the parents will have to fill out the information via a school portal. The student also received paperwork that needed to be filled up by a doctor with the diagnosis and give back to school.
Mangan said that the school is not forced to have any database for injuries or concussion.
Arrowhead does have a protocol for students who enroll in athletics. A physical test is required (this was true of other districts too.)
“Every student who applies to be part of any concrete activity has to go to their doctor and make sure they have a good health,” said Mangan. “So they have to come back and give that to us before they can compete and then every other year we need an update.”
Mangan said that trainers in the athletic activities department document injuries in a chart and put it in their training system. They don’t have a protocol in which they have to inform parents if there is any injury unless it’s serious. The information will run through the trainers and the athletic director if it’s a minor injury.
Mangan did have a solution for students who wanted to play in college and might be concerned that having records of concussions could harm that quest.
“I guess the reason that I would say that doesn’t happen is because if you are concern about the college level, colleges don’t go to the WIAA, that’s not something where they share information,” said Mangan, “College would do the same thing that a high school does when a student comes as an athlete. As a college athlete they put you through a physical right off the back, they ask you does questions.”
Mangan said that it would probably would be against the privacy laws to share athlete information to a private entity as the WIAA. As for the students who lie about previous concussions, Mangan compared their situation with filing health insurance. Mangan said that doctors can’t be responsible for people lying when they answer questions about their health.
“I think the same would be here, we can’t depend on people sharing information that is private information, it’s your responsibility as a college athlete to share that information.” said Mangan.
Similarly, Media Milwaukee received an answer from Bonduel school district. District Administrator Patrick Rau, answered all the questions.
“We work closely with the student’s family and medical staff to ensure they are safe,” said Rau.
Trainers were sometimes hesitant to speak on the record.
One trainer strongly defends the progress of managing concussions in high school sports, especially in the state of Wisconsin. He, who asked to be anonymous, said how the protocol they have is “the best we’ve ever had,” due to the International Conference on Concussion Sport updating consensus statements in 2001, 2004, 2008 and 2012.
He vividly described the protocols the athletes undergo such as the SCAT3 test performed on the sidelines. The test measures, “how they are thinking right now,” and he attacks the situation three ways: “how do you feel, how do I see an athlete and then we have the imPACT test.” The imPACT test is a widely used concussion management tool an athlete takes before his or her freshmen and junior seasons. After suffering a concussion, they retake the test and the athletic trainer compares the results. Access to the test depends on what medical company the school partners with. Aurora, Froedtert and Midwest Orthopedic Specialty were named as the main providers in the greater Milwaukee area, with Prohealth being in Waukesha. They provide athletic trainers at MPS (Milwaukee Public Schools) games and have “more contact with these kids than they’ve ever had.”
You cannot talk safety without bringing up equipment. While not all high school football equipment is identical, it all must be approved by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE). It alerts the schools of whether or not their equipment is good to go. He noted how guidelines limit a helmet for no more than 10 years of use in the state of Wisconsin. Every helmet has a warning sticker on it identifying its true purpose, which the coach addresses to his players every year by reading it together. “It’s not for tackling, or spearing, it is for protection.”
He takes an ultra-conservative approach toward rehabilitation saying, “so many people were or are high school athletes, and most aren’t going to make their money playing that sport. So, my whole thing is I’m going to treat you as conservative as I can. We got to get you guys through life.”
But many fear one can become susceptible to concussions once having experienced one, and then tend to cumulatively worsen. He says there has been a lot of research covering this topic, with some saying it does, while others say it comes down to how you manage them. And with that, trust becomes a necessity.
He dives into the community to build trustworthy relationships with both the athletes and their parents. “I talk to parents and I say, ‘It’s one thing to get hit and have concussion symptoms, but if you don’t tell anybody and get hit again while concussed, there’s the real danger.”
For this reason, he takes a strong approach to developing a healthy, friendly relationship with the players, hoping it will lead them to reporting to him more. He justifies his fellow trainers for striving to attain the best method or approach, but can be frequently hindered due to the numerous variables that come into play, such as not being able to see what’s inside everyone’s head which forces one to act instinctively.
“I think about that a lot: How many guys have had concussions on the field that I never knew about?”
— BM was also an author on this story.