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High school football players discuss the pressure to stay in the game, despite concussions

February 3, 2014 at 6:42 PM EST
Despite reports on the dangers of concussions and in the wake of recent lawsuits against the NFL for illnesses related to head injuries, even high school athletes feel pressured to hide their injuries in order to get back in the game. Hari Sreenivasan and PBS NewsHour’s network of Student Reporting Labs explore how concussions in football have affected high school players.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Next: a students’ eye view of a problem we have been covering for a while: concussions suffered on the football field and the damage they do.

Hari Sreenivasan narrates this report.

HARI SREENIVASAN: According to the National Academy of Sciences, there are 11 recorded concussions for every 10,000 high school games and practices, twice the rate of college players. But researchers believe the number is actually much higher because many go unreported.

We asked our network of Student Reporting Labs, middle and high school journalism programs around the country, to provide a snapshot of concussions in their hometowns.

Alex Borowski of Windsor High School in California couldn’t tell he was badly hurt.

ALEX BOROWSKI, Windsor High School: The hit itself wasn’t that big. I HAD suffered worse hits, you know, two days earlier in practice, and I was basically sleepwalking through the rest of the game.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Coaches are trained to identify when a player is injured, but it can take time for symptoms to appear.

ALEX BOROWSKI: They didn’t take me out until the third quarter, when one of my coaches noticed how I was acting. And even on film, I could see that, you know, I didn’t really know what I was doing.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Often, players try to hide their injuries to get back in the game, not realizing concussions can lead to memory loss, sleep problems and changes in behavior.

This player at Austin High School who asked not to be identified said he saw flashes of light and stars and even blacked out. He knew what the symptoms meant. But he wanted to keep playing despite these and other injuries.

STUDENT: I have had about 15 to 20 concussions, and I have only reported four.

HARI SREENIVASAN: That figure is based on personal experience, rather than medical evidence. But even if the true number is less, this player says there’s no question the hard hits have affected his brain.

STUDENT: I do feel as if the concussions have diminished my ability to concentrate on certain subjects, especially, like, math. Adding numbers seems a lot harder, or figuring out a puzzle is just a lot more tedious than it should be.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The lax attitude stems partly from a culture where on-field performance is paramount and kids just want to play.

STUDENT: Sixteen-year-old kid, you’re invincible. You want to get back on the field as quickly as you can. And a concussion, you can’t get — you get a headache, but you really don’t feel it. It is not like a sprained ankle.

Chuck Cook a graduate of Black River Falls High School in Wisconsin, explained how he and his friends beat the so-called impact test, a set of associations and memory questions used to diagnose concussions.

STUDENT: I did not take the impact test seriously. My freshman sophomore year, I tested low on purpose. I didn’t want to have to sit out a football game because I had a concussion.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Meaning when Chuck was tested after a hard hit to see if he had a concussion, his low score wouldn’t set off alarm bells that he was hurt. And he could go back in the game.

And while new regulations require coaches to take head injury awareness classes, players revealed there is still a lot of pressure to get back in uniform.

Jesse Horseman from Fort Mill, South Carolina.

JESSE HORSEMAN, Fort Mill High School: A couple days after I got my concussion, I definitely felt pressured to get back on to the field. And I wasn’t comfortable at all, because it was only a couple days afterwards and coaches were asking me, how much longer?

HARI SREENIVASAN: But for Richard Cunningham in Austin, the health effects were too much. He decided to switch sports.

RICHARD CUNNINGHAM, Stephen P. Austin High School: I missed football more than probably anyone out there. But it was just what was in my health’s best interests. I have been blessed that concussions put things in line for me. And I was able to focus more on my baseball and my academics. And as much as I do miss football, it’s just — it’s been a blessing in disguise having to put it up.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In Montana, it was only after one player died from repeated head injuries that attitudes truly began changing. Dylan Steigers went into a coma after a hard hit during a scrimmage in 2010. He was flown to the hospital and died the next day.

His parents channeled their grief to push forward the Dylan Steigers Protection of Youth Athletes Act, a state law that requires each school district to test for concussions and set guidelines for when an athlete can start playing again.

CYNDI STEIGERS, mother of Dylan Steigers: We will never recover. We will never recover. But we can do — if you can do something positive in your life to help somebody else, that’s very healing.

GWEN IFILL: You can watch all of the student-produced stories on our special feature page Tough Calls, how concussion awareness has affected youth football around the country.

Black River Falls High School in Black River Falls, Wis.; Fort Mill High School in Fort Mill, S.C.; Sentinel High School in Missoula, Mont.; Stephen F. Austin High School in Austin, Texas; and Windsor High School in Windsor, Calif., contributed to this report.

PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs is supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Science Foundation