In lieu of practice, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) football coaches and athletic directors participated in advanced concussion training on Monday, when officials sought to reduce concussion-related issues for student athletes.
The event, held at Helen Bernstein High School, drew a standing-room-only crowd, and was attended by former NFL players, professional wrestlers and LAUSD officials.
“I don’t think there’s any more important issue these days in high school than concussion training. It’s an unknown to many of us,” LAUSD athletics department commissioner Barbara Fiege said.
She referenced AB 1451, which establishes a high school coaching education and training program to understand the basic signs and symptoms of concussions. Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill on Aug. 17.
“You are ahead of the curve,” Fiege said. “There is no more important duty for a coach than to take care of the safety of our student athletes.”
Chris Nowinski, the co-founder of the Sports Legacy Institute, which hosted the training, said the organization piloted the program in Chicago last year and trained more than 3,000 coaches. He also announced the creation of the California Concussion Coalition.
“We know we can do a better job combining services for our student athletes out there who are at risk for concussion,” Nowinski said. “There’s a lot of great programs out there in California, and we want to bring them together to work in partnership to make sure we’re giving these kids the best chance they have at succeeding on the field, and not have their careers shortened by concussions.”
A former professional wrestler who has battled concussions in the past, Nowinski said he was pleased that AB 1451 had passed, and that coaches should have had access to concussion-related information 20 years ago.
“The problem is kids are out there getting concussions today, right now,” Nowinski added. “Practice is happening, and we need to make sure you have the tools you need.”
Billy Corgan, the frontman for the band, The Smashing Pumpkins, is a board member for the institute and is active in professional wrestling. He said he met Nowinski in 2002, when Nowinski couldn’t compete due to concussions, and simply asked how he was doing.
“He says, ‘Well, I’m OK. I spend every other day in a darkened room, unable to deal with [light] without vomiting. I have headaches every two days,’” Corgan said. “I watched him lose his dreams.”
Though he is now a rock star, Corgan played sports in school and has been an avid Cubs fan for years. He has also started an independent wrestling federation called Resistance Pro, which is the first wrestling organization to have an open concussion policy.
“As a former student-athlete, I’m very sensitive to the issue of what it takes for a kid to have the courage to say, ‘I’m hurt.’ Back in my day, if you hurt your knee, they sit you on the sidelines. If you hurt your head, they send you right back in the game. And if you didn’t want to go back, the [coaches] said you weren’t tough,” Corgan said.
He said the issue of concussions is resulting in cultural change, and he praised the coaches in attendance for taking time out of their practices to discuss and learn about the topic.
“You’re going to save lives and affect lives in ways you probably don’t realize,” Corgan added.
Professional wrestler Rob Van Dam said he has had hundreds of concussions, and they can have immediate and lasting effects. He said he would lose his equilibrium and light would hurt his eyes. Sometimes, the episodes would last a few seconds; other times, they would last all night, Van Dam said.
“I could not remember any of the facts or events leading up to that concussion,” he said, adding that he still gets them occasionally. “It’s not as often as it was due to a lot of things. One of them is the different style [of wrestling]. It’s not as extreme. Some of the rules or precautions we take have been changed. You don’t see all the really stiff chair shots to the head as much anymore.”
Van Dam praised Nowinski for his efforts to research and explain concussions. He said Nowinski has looked at some of the brains of his friends, and he was proud to say that Nowinski may one day analyze his brain.
“Education has to move forward,” Van Dam said. “We’re protecting the brain, and that’s got to come first.”
After the press conference, the coaches underwent training on how to prevent, assess, manage and research concussions, with the primary goal of preventing brain trauma in athletes and other at-risk groups.
Fairfax High School head football coach Shane Cox said LAUSD coaches have an annual meeting in which they spend at least three hours discussing proper tackling methods, head injuries and concussion. He said Monday’s training complemented those discussions.
“We learned a lot of technical issues and technical things in regards to how the brain is moving inside the skull,” Cox said.
In general, the most important aspect of concussion training is teaching the proper method of tackling, which does not include using the head or helmet to bring down a defender, he said.
“Really that’s where we’re at, and we have to get on the same page,” Cox said. “It was a reinforcer, and it just hammered home those points you already knew.”
He said there are some coaches who still teach players to lead with their heads, and those coaches generally have teams with concussion issues. Cox said the issue is especially prevalent in youth football leagues.
The bigger issue may be whether someone may be able to monitor coaches and watch their tackling and blocking techniques, he said. Cox asked rhetorically if those coaches would be removed from their positions or if someone would monitor the number of concussions that occur on their team.
“Those are the other issues,” he added. “I’m sure that’s where we’re headed. That’s the problem, is the oversight.”
Cox said some concussions are unavoidable, and that the Fairfax team generally has about one or two per year. However, at the training seminar on Monday, he learned that the players may have had more concussions than they knew about, simply because the hits that caused them were less severe.
“That was the scary part about the training,” Cox said, adding that coaches must open the lines of communication to allow players to admit such injuries. “If you’re a decent coach, you have that kind of rapport with your kids.”
Former NFL wide receiver Jerry Simmons said concussions are serious business. He said he has run into his former colleagues at various events, and some do not remember him, nor do they recall their playing days.
“One of the greatest opportunities we have is to change the culture,” Simmons said. “Hitting somebody with your head causes serious problems.”
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