Will New Rules Reduce Football-Related Head Injuries?

WIMBERLEY — In this Hill Country community, as in most Texas towns, high school football is a way of life. Whether they are playing under Texan Stadium’s bright lights on a Friday night or in the sweltering afternoon heat, boys clad in navy, white and blue uniforms show up day after day to live out their dreams of gridiron glory.

At a recent practice, when the players were asked about new rules passed by the Legislature to protect student athletes from concussion injuries, one shrugged his shoulders and grinned. Thinking about head injuries, he said, would just “take away from the game.”

Even if teenage boys believe they are invincible, they are not. Nationwide, studies indicate more than 60,000 concussions occur every year among high-school-age football players. A growing body of evidence suggests that repeated head trauma in young people can lead to permanent brain damage.

Starting in 2012, school football programs statewide — which involve an estimated 160,000 high school players — will be required every two years to re-condition helmets that are 10 years or older. Helmets older than 16 years must be retired. Johnny Gonzales, Wimberley’s athletic trainer, said the school already sends its helmets to manufacturers for annual safety updates and replaces helmets on a regular basis.

The author of the helmet bill, state Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, said he believes the state has not gone far enough to protect students. He is especially concerned about poor districts where old helmets are more likely to be recycled by middle school players.

During the 2011 session, Lucio attempted to pass a bill that would have required student athletes to take a baseline cognitive test to measure their memory before an injury — a procedure already used by some high schools and most professional and college sports. Instead, lawmakers passed a different measure that requires districts to appoint concussion oversight teams that include physicians. Under that law, athletes who exhibit symptoms of a brain injury must be removed from games immediately until a doctor clears them to return.

“It’s so convoluted — what proof do we have that a kid isn’t lying to get back on the field?” Lucio said.

Gonzales said that he believes there have been times when students have withheld the extent of their injuries because they know they  may be forced to sit out a game.

“They won’t want to say a word to me unless it’s blatantly obvious they do have a head injury,” he said.

He reports that so far this fall, one concussion has occurred during a game. Others were injured off the field while doing other activities. Already, he said, he has faced the anger of one set of parents who felt their child’s concussion did not merit getting benched.

Weldon Nelms, Wimberley High’s head coach, said his staff can train players to withstand blows and invest in pads and helmets,  but even their best efforts may not prevent all injuries. After more than thirty years of coaching, Nelms teaches his players to know that football comes with inherent risks that can only be mitigated with common sense.

“You’re very cautious about how far you push those kids,” Nelms said. “Any kind of head injury just scares you to death.”

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.