LAWRENCE (May 23, 2017) — Daniel Bryant couldn’t get home soon enough. As he rode back to Lawrence from Park Hill on Sept. 9, 2016, the roadside lights left him dizzy. He just wanted to sleep in his pitch-black bedroom.
Several hours earlier the Lawrence Free State senior had an early exit in a football game against Park Hill. In the locker room, Lawrence Free State athletic trainer Meghan Chaffin went through the required head trauma protocol with Bryant. He was concussed.
He couldn’t remember his helmet flying off or the head-first collision. His emotions ran high during the required concussion protocol with Chaffin. He alternated between anger and confusion. Everything he knows about the moment he suffered a concussion, he learned later on.
“As I look back on the night, I cannot remember getting hit or getting off the ground,” Bryant said.
Had Bryant gone to the sideline without Chaffin there, he may have gone back into the game. Having an athletic trainer on the sideline and guidelines to follow is crucial to football’s survival.
While there is evidence that having a medical professional on the sidelines of football is important, 109 schools in Kansas still operate without an athletic trainer.
The development of concussion research in football over the last decade has resulted in strict protocol and a need for athletic trainers on the sideline. As head trauma research and treatment improves, the greatest challenge may be the emotions involved and the fan’s perception of football.
Parents, coaches and fans can’t replace a medical professional’s take on a player’s condition. That’s why the athletic trainers may be the most important component in the concussion protocol process.
Chaffin is the only athletic trainer on staff at Lawrence Free State. She said other sports have plenty of injuries, including concussions. Football just has a lot.
Twenty years ago, Bryant would’ve sat on the sideline until he decided he was ready to play. In 2017, that won’t fly with Chaffin and other athletic trainers. Bryant now realizes how fortunate he is that Chaffin wouldn’t let him back in the game, despite how badly he wanted to return.
“I am very grateful I did not return,” Bryant said. “I believe I had a much more serious concussion than anyone thought, and I tried to cover things up so I could return as soon as possible.”
A radical culture shift has taken place. Even at the high school level, players often want to return to the game despite being concussed, Chaffin said. However, players aren’t the only ones who pressure athletic trainers into getting other players back out on the field.
“Coaches usually will wait until the locker room and not on the sideline, but we’ve have gotten into some sideline (arguments) as well,” Chaffin said. “Concussions weren’t really a thing when a lot of coaches played.”
Chaffin said this is a common occurrence for athletic trainers.
“It isn’t just here of course. It comes from very old-school ideas,” she said. “They would just say ‘you got your bell rung and go back in there.’”
Those ideas stem from generations of football coaches being around the game without the proper medical knowledge of what happens with head trauma. Former Lawrence High School football coach Dick Purdy is a part of that generation of coaches. He began what was a 60-year career in the 1950s. Head trauma and concussions weren’t common topics back then.
“We didn’t pay that much attention,” Purdy said.
Purdy said the lack of facemasks was the biggest factor in players targeting other areas of the body when tackling, rather than the head. Without the facemask, players didn’t feel nearly as invincible to injury.
“Football was played quite a bit differently then.”
After Riddell added the facemask, Purdy said coaches would instruct players to use their face now that they were protected. But, the facemask did nothing to stop head trauma for players. With no athletic trainers or doctors on the sidelines, this resulted in concussions that went unnoticed and untreated.
Like Chaffin said, Purdy would send players back into the same game they received a concussion in. Once the players seemed ready to the coaches, they would be thrown back into the game, risking another injury.
It wasn’t until the ‘70s and ‘80s that Purdy coached a team that had a doctor or athletic trainer present at the game. From the ‘80s to now, progress has been made, but there is room for improvement. More athletic trainers exist in the Kansas than 30 years ago.
Brent Unruh, Office and Operations manager at Kansas State High School Activities Association (KSHSAA), said in its most recent survey that of 353 schools, only 27 percent of Kansas schools reported having a full-time athletic trainer. Forty-two percent of schools have a part-time trainer.
Despite being the only athletic trainer at Lawrence Free State, Chaffin is still only part-time. Her workload put her in position to deal with concussions often. She still remembers the scariest concussion she ever had to deal with on the sidelines. The smacking of the helmet was so loud that everybody in the stadium knew what happened, Chaffin said.
As the player got to the sidelines, he realized he wouldn’t be able to return to the game and threw his helmet. The helmet nearly broke in two upon the initial collision on the field and throwing it widened the rift.
Tremendous pressure typically lies on Chaffin in moments like these, but this instance was different. As soon as the hit occurred, everyone on the field knew what happened. The concussed player was immediately removed from play and didn’t return.
Chaffin received her degree from the University of Kansas, where she learned how to handle high-pressure situations like this in the athletic training program. Greg Smith is a current instructor at the University in the program.
“You just have to stick to your guns, be calm and explain the decision you are making and that it’s based on the facts being presented to you and not because you have any personal stake in it,” Smith said.
Communication is a key component in being an effective athletic trainer. He or she must adhere to strict guidelines, no matter what coaches or players say, Smith said. As athletes get bigger, faster and stronger, following the rules will prove to be critical for players and athletic trainers alike.
On July 1, 2011, the Kansas Legislature enacted the “Kansas Act,” also known as the School Sports Head Injury Prevention Act. The Kansas State High School Activities Association (KSHSAA) states the rules, regulations and recommendations. Parents and players must sign a form to acknowledge these rules before players can compete.
As the act reads: “Any athlete who exhibits signs, symptoms or behaviors consistent with a concussion (such as loss of consciousness, headache, dizziness, confusion, or balance problems) shall be immediately removed from the contest and shall not return to play until cleared by an appropriate health care professional.”
Following the rules is the key to change in football, Scott Anderson, athletic trainers’ Hall of Famer, said. In his time working for Oklahoma and Tulane University, Anderson recognized the behaviors of players and play styles.
“If you look back on the player safety you can see rule change and with rule change there is a behavioral change,” Anderson said. “We have good rules on the books and good techniques. What we need to do is enforce the rules that are in the book.”
The NCAA has made several rule changes regarding the use of the helmet to tackle, and included the loss of a helmet as an injury. As of 2012, players must exit the game for a play after losing their helmet. In Bryant’s case, this gave Chaffin the opportunity to check him for a concussion.
When a player uses his helmet to tackle, it now goes under official review, and if the referees deem it to be intentional, the player is ejected. This kind of reinforcement of the rules is what Anderson said could make as much of a difference as any type of helmet or regulation.
“If you take that out of the game and teach technique and punish poor behavior and reward good behavior there is an opportunity to enlarge the safety,” Anderson said.
Without rule change, the safety of players can’t improve. Without research, rules can’t be changed. In order for player safety to move forward, data must be collected
Dr. Brian Hainline, chief medical officer at the NCAA, has been on the forefront of concussion research the past 15 years.
Hainline, an expert neurologist, is one of many NCAA physicians doing research. Hainline expects the near future to hold a greater understanding of head trauma with up to 12 articles coming out in the next couple years.
Finding information about concussions isn’t the hard part for Hainline and the NCAA. Hainline said it had been years since the NCAA found information that could be used for rule change. The last data, Hainline said, was useful to them and effectively changed how quickly players return to the field.
“Back then when a player came off the field the average return to play was in six and a half days,” Hainline said.
Now, the average return to play is 13 days as opposed to just six.
The talk surrounding concussions has skyrocketed in the past five to 10 years. The NFL finally acknowledged concussion research and the NCAA made multiple rule changes since 2011. Knowledge about what concussions are and how we can make sports safer grew.
NFL Network reporter Jeff Chadiha has seen how players reacted to rule change.
“It’s hard for the players sometimes to really understand some of this because anytime you make a change there is going to be some kind of resistance,” Chadiha said.
Now that time has passed and the improvements on safety have been seen in the rule change, Chadiha said players are more likely to accept it. Concussion research has shown results on the field.
Hainline said the concussion research he is working on at the NCAA will hopefully answer several questions: What does this mean, what does the research do, and what can be done about it? Once the data is out, Hainline said it will be important for society to decide if it can make data driven decisions. Making changes to practice, rules and officiating could lead the way in lowering risk.
“We will never eliminate risk in sport, but we can make the risk-benefit much more favorable for the athlete,” Hainline said. “A technical knockout and a knockout both mean that you are so concussed either you can’t protect yourself or you can’t stand up.”
Twenty-five million. That’s how many views the “Biggest Football Hits Ever” video has on YouTube. It gets thousands more every day, and the video is licensed by the NFL, which means the NFL profits off those thousands of views each day.
Anyone can find dozens of videos on YouTube just like it, compiling film of players getting flipped, knocked out and sent to the sidelines. The comments are overwhelmingly positive on the video; reinforcement that a highlight play in football is an injured player.
In the closing moments of the video, there’s a clip of a peewee football player lowering his head to knock down another child.
The top comment reads: “This is why I love football.”
“That’s just what American football is. That’s what everyone loves to see, they love to see somebody really take someone out and that is just how this culture has always been,” Chaffin said. “That just comes strictly from a fan standpoint that they don’t know exactly what consequences there are from those kinds of things.”
Bob Davis was the broadcaster for Kansas Jayhawks football for many decades. During his career he noticed the shift in culture in college football from the media side.
“I can remember terrific hits over the years and you’d say ‘he had a good tackle,’ Davis said. “Well, probably not going to do that now or if he does, is going to be penalized for it.”
While big hits have been visualized as highlight plays in the past, the reason they continue to take place isn’t because of YouTube videos, but because of intimidation.
“At its core, intimidation is a big part of football. It’s about trying to make somebody fear you and respect you on a certain level,” Chadiha said. “A lot of that comes about through physical play. There’s always been a reward for being a physical player in football.”
Despite the emotion factor, Chadiha said the line between intimidation and injury has to be met.
“There has to be a little more sympathy for the other person,” Chadiha said.
Five years ago the same plays in the “Biggest Football Hits Ever” YouTube video would’ve made Sportscenter’s Top 10 plays. Hainline said the media’s coverage is vastly different now.
“Fortunately, that kind of footage on ESPN, I don’t think it is even happening anymore. You still see the big hits, but when you see the targeting hits they aren’t be glorified, they are being called out as targeting,” Hainline said.
The NFL is still overwhelmingly the most popular sports league in the United States. It has been for many decades, but not every fan feels great about it.
Dr. Jordan R. Bass, assistant professor of the sport management program at the University, has five football helmets in his office at the Robinson Center. Four of the mini helmets are red, blue, white and baby blue Jayhawk helmets lined on his desk. The last one is a Florida State Seminoles helmet; one of the most recent additions because it is the university in which Bass received his doctorate. Come fall, Bass knows he will once again be caught up in the storm that is collegiate and professional football.
“I personally have this real guilt of watching football because I know what it does,” Bass said.
On the management side of sports, Bass teaches his classes about the role of concussions in football in society and the obligations that managers have. Despite rule changes, Bass fears that future generations may give up on the violence of football.
Changing the physicality would mean changing the culture of the game.
“I’m not sure how you take concussions out of the game without changing what people enjoy,” Bass said.
For now, football continues to thrive.