Playing sports is a valuable experience in a child’s development, yet steps can be taken to increase safety for young athletes, a panel of experts said at a recent Atlanta forum.
The panel included prominent names from such diverse fields as medicine, sports, education and the media. They agreed there’s a need for more awareness and understanding of sports concussions — and how to prevent and treat them.
The science relating to concussions “is still developing,’’ said one panelist, Dr. David Satcher, a former U.S. surgeon general and now the co-chairman of the National Council on Youth Sports Safety. “There’s still so much we don’t know.”
The Feb. 26 presentation, “Making Play Safe for Kids,’’ was part of a speaker series from the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation. Blank himself, who owns the Atlanta Falcons, made remarks before the discussion, as did Roger Goodell, commissioner of the National Football League.
Goodell spoke of his own daughters playing sports. “I want my kids to participate; I want them to be safe,” he told the audience. “You don’t have to compromise safety to do it well. I think this issue is critical for our children.’’
The NFL commissioner has pushed for increased safety in football, as the league has toughened its protocols for players who have suffered concussions.
Last August, the NFL agreed to a $760 million settlement with more than 4,000 former players who had sued the league over head injuries.
Blank, a co-founder of The Home Depot, noted that the Falcons and the NFL have supported a program, Heads Up Football, for youth leagues that teaches concussion awareness and proper helmet fitting, and proper techniques for tackling. The Falcons also backed the passage of a new Georgia law establishing protocols for school athletes who have suffered concussions.
The panel’s moderator, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, pointed out that a concussion is a brain injury, and can even occur without a direct blow to the head, as in a car accident. It has to be treated as a serious matter whatever the setting.
What to ask and what to demand
Though public attention to sporting events and star athletes may be greater than ever, there is some evidence that fewer young Americans are signing up to play sports.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that combined participation in the four most popular U.S. team sports – basketball, soccer, baseball and football – fell among boys and girls ages 6 through 17 by roughly 4 percent from 2008 to 2012.
Gupta, a neurosurgeon, approached that issue directly. He asked the panel a question: With the risks of concussions and other injuries, should parents let their kids play sports?
Satcher said sports can be a good learning experience for children, teaching them leadership, self-confidence and teamwork, among other things.
As a parent, Satcher continued, he would want to know what the state’s sports injury rules are, whether the coach has training in safety and whether an athletic trainer is available.
Not all sports leagues are equally funded, said Satcher, also founder of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta. “All sidelines are not the same’’ when it comes to safety.
Kate Carr, president and CEO of Safe Kids Worldwide, said she has found a widespread “hunger for information’’ about player safety for kids.
She said key sports safety issues for children include: Are they hydrated? Have they had a physical exam before being cleared to participate? Are they physically prepared to enter a game? Are they emotionally ready?
There are not enough athletic trainers in youth sports, Carr added.
One sports safety problem is the number of injuries from overuse of repetitive motions. These often come when a young athlete only focuses on one sport year round, experts say.
Young athletes should not be afraid to speak up when they think they’ve had a concussion, Carr added.
The problem of players keeping quiet is a real one. A recent report from the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council said young athletes in the United States face a “culture of resistance” to reporting when they might have a concussion and to complying with treatment plans, which could endanger their well-being.
Activity and nutrition
Gupta, reiterating the danger of brain injuries, said proper treatment – including mental rest from school lessons – is important to recovery from concussion.
Alexis Glick, CEO of GENYOUth Foundation, said children seeking a role model should consider an athlete such as NFL quarterback Alex Smith, who said he had no regrets about sitting out games due to a concussion. He eventually lost his quarterback job to his San Francisco teammate Colin Kaepernick.
At the same time, the panelists noted the well-known truth that inactivity poses great dangers to health. Kids need exercise, and schools should encourage them to get it, whether the kids are competing on a team or not.
Glick noted that physically active, well-nourished children perform better academically, behave better at school and miss school less often.
But she said states have cut access to physical education and recess in their emphasis on boosting standardized test scores.
“As a mother of four kids, I want my children to be student-athletes,” said Glick of GENYOUth, which runs the “Fuel Up to Play 60” school health and wellness program.
Satcher said some school programs in Georgia are making a difference in getting students to be more active and eat healthier foods. And he noted a bit of good news that was reported just before the forum: Obesity rates in young children were down.
“We’re moving in the right direction,’’ Satcher said. “We are making progress. We’re saving a lot of children from diabetes and hypertension.’’