My playing days in football taught me a lot about the culture of the game—the masked actions of those involved within the structure of a football program that the general public is not necessarily aware of. This would most notably be the treatment of injured athletes.
When I sustained my first diagnosed concussion during my sophomore year of high school, I was shocked at how my teammates reacted to the injury. I was no longer one of the leaders to those in my class, nor to the team. I was no longer seen as the guy who put everything on the line for the sake of the game—the kid who showed up early and left late for each practice, the kid who pushed himself beyond his own limit, the kid who did not put up with any lack of determination in his teammates.
No. I was now the one who lacked determination. I was the one whose commitment was put to question, and whose very existence as an active member of the team was scrutinized. I was faking it, but many forget that after my first concussion, I got right back up and went back into the huddle. Really? Many forget that I was the one who, against the decision of the athletic trainer, suited up at training camp (still concussed) and played with the team until I wound up in a hospital bed. Really, he did that? And despite many medical recommendations to give up football my junior year, I still returned; only to be confronted by another concussion that ultimately marked the end of my career. I didn’t know he did that either!
Football is largely a game of X’s and O’s, where players are minimized to numbers on a depth chart, and are widely considered to be expendable figures in a program that is essentially capable of continually replenishing itself.
And yet when it comes to a concussion, a brain injury, there is insignificant realization of the severity of the situation. To many, it becomes a joke, or even a distraction. I’ve seen teammates, coaches, and classmates joke around about my concussion—often in a critical manner. There is no need to list the expletives that have been thrown in my direction because of the mere fact that I had to give up football for the sake of my cognitive future.
I see two large issues in football today—the lack of thorough education on concussions for coaches and athletes, as well as the common, unstable relationships that are found between coaching staffs and athletic trainers. From my perspective, the athletic trainer deserves the voice in this circumstance.
“It’s important to know that how you treat a head injury has a big impact on your recovery time,” said Amanda Frescoln, an athletic trainer at Upper Merion Area High School (PA) who oversaw my recovery after a third diagnosed concussion my junior year. “There is nothing you can do to speed up your recovery, but there are a lot of things that you can do to drag it out.”
Again, this was something that was never drawn to my attention. When I was told to wait a week before reevaluation after my first concussion, I was unaware of the implications of recovery time and injury management. My coaches sure didn’t know either. This seems to be a trend at the high school level of the game.
“Most college coaches are very informed [on how to handle a concussion], but high school coaches typically have an older, ‘shake it off’ attitude,” Frescoln said. “Education is the key.”
A lack of education, and lack of desire to be educated, is a problem that has severely circulated the atmosphere of the game. Football has grown to become a continuous argument now with regards to injury management, for concussions conflict with the ever-so-popular slogan of pain being weakness leaving the body. In fact, many athletes and coaches fail to recognize that concussions, though you can’t physically see the injury, are something that should be taken seriously. Damage to your brain has nothing to do with ‘weakness.’
Oh, I must be mistaken—that was the argument used against me when I was told to sit out my sophomore season because of nearly two months of post-concussion symptoms that completely took control of my everyday life. Could this be because the initial contact that caused my original injury wasn’t your typical “he-got-messed-up” collision? Jackie Filipone, an athletic trainer at William Tennent High School in Pennsylvania (who was the athletic trainer at Upper Merion my sophomore year), explains.
“Lighter blows are not taken seriously, and [are] disregarded until a second concussion, or a more intense one, occcurs.”
She later went on to explain what it is that generates such notions of negligence in the environment of a football program. Something that can, in many ways, get in the way of an athletic trainer doing his or her job in caring for the athletes who have been injured.
“Conflicts are inevitable with ‘bull-headed’ coaches,” said Filipone. “I’m not saying that some coaches don’t care about their kids’ health, but the want to win sometimes overcomes the athlete’s full recovery at times. The athletic trainer can only fight their battle, forcing themselves to sometimes control the game’s players themselves.”
I completely agree with the fact that not all coaches purposely disregard an athlete’s health or safety. It is easy to get caught up in the moment of the game, or to be consumed by the demands that coaching positions hold in order to produce a successful group of individuals. Again, as this is a common theme for football, it all goes back to the culture of the game and how the game has developed into what it is today. This motivation targeting success also grasps the decisions of parents, too, in determining whether or not their child is in good enough shape to perform.
“There just isn’t enough understanding about all a concussion entails, especially to the general public,” Filipone went on to say. “Parents have told me, ‘it’s just a headache, he’s fine to go back in,’ or ‘he just had his bell rung, that is just football.’ I’ve also had athletes say [that] unless they couldn’t stand or something was sticking out of their skin, they weren’t going to come out. These types of people believe concussion is a made-up injury.”
And so it all comes back throughout a vicious cycle of ignorance. In 2007, when I suffered my first diagnosed concussion, I was introduced to a disturbing wave of criticism and disrespect from those who I had once considered to be closest to me. This was also the first time I had ever heard of the injury. It is 2011, and despite all the media publicity that the NFL and medical discoveries have generated with regards to repetitive brain trauma, the public opinion has failed to move significantly in the right direction (or at least where many think it should be). We are progressing, however, which continues to be promising.
When I interviewed Christopher Nowinski of the Sports Legacy Institute in 2009 on head injuries in sports, he said something that has stuck in my mind concerning this issue—something that I feel should be stressed at all levels of play, and needs to be carefully looked at for inspiration…
“We need to take a step back and start taking care of ourselves.”