Football has long been considered America’s game. It’s the most popular sport in the country because it gives viewers the opportunity to witness superior athletes compete in a high-risk, physically challenging game. In recent years, one of those challenges associated with playing football has caused great concern.
Concussions were once considered a part of football, but with increasing information about the long-term effects of concussions, it has become the biggest threat to aspiring football players and to the future of the sport.
The Miami Dolphins, in conjunction with Heads Up Football, USA Football’s national initiative to make the sport safer, hosted its first “Mom’s Clinic” at the Dolphins’ practice facility in Davie on July 18. During the event, more than 100 mothers of football players from South Florida came together wearing white Dolphins shirts to learn about concussions and the best ways to prevent them. The clinic included information about heat and hydration, equipment fitting and concluded with interactive drills that show proper tackling techniques.
Dawn Aponte, Dolphins executive vice president of football administration, was the first speaker at the event and talked about the importance of people knowing what they are dealing with when it comes to concussions.
“As we know, health and safety is a priority at every level of every sport, particularly in football,” said Aponte, who is on the board of directors for USA Football. “We want to make sure that not only are the parents educated, but specifically the moms because they are the decision makers for their kids. I think tonight is a perfect example of the many ways USA Football and the NFL have taken that step.”
Dolphins’ linebacker Olivier Vernon then demonstrated how to properly put on a fitted helmet.
Vernon, 23, who is entering his third season in the NFL, grew up in Hialeah and played for the University of Miami. He suffered a concussion while playing in college and talked about the importance of educating young players on how to prevent one.
“My concussion wasn’t too serious. We did the proper tests, and I was OK,” Vernon said. “Many players in the past dealt with major concussions and went back out there thinking everything was good, but you never know what it can do to you long term.”
He mentioned the new techniques being taught to prevent concussions.
“Not using your head as much,” he said. “Using your head and getting hit in the side of the head is what causes concussions, so we’re more conscious of that now. We’re showing ways of playing the game safer.”
Many retired NFL players were not as fortunate to have some of the information being taught today during their careers.
In August of last year, the NFL reached a $765 million settlement over concussion-related brain injuries after being sued by more than 4,500 former players — many who suffer from dementia, Alzheimer’s or depression that they blamed on head injuries. The players who sued claim the league concealed the dangers of concussions and rushed injured players back on the field. In the settlement, the NFL agreed to compensate victims, pay for medical exams and underwrite research.
The recent news has caused many parents to become hesitant to let their children play football. Pop Warner, the nation’s largest youth football league, saw the number of registered players drop by 9 percent from 2010 to 2012, according to ESPN’s Outside the Lines. Even legendary former quarterback Brett Favre has publicly stated that he would be “leery” of letting his son play football.
Sports doctorshave been working to alleviate fears and offer appropriate tests to evaluate the effects of a concussion, as well as getting athletes to take the proper precautions before playing football. One of these tests is the baseline test, which is a preseason evaluation of an athlete’s brain function that can be used to compare to tests done after the athlete is suspected of having suffered a concussion.
Dr. Gillian Hotz, director of the UHealth Sports Medicine Concussion Program at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, has specialized in neurotrauma and pediatric brain injury since 1992. For the last three years, Hotz and her colleagues are educating Miami-Dade athletes at 36 public schools and 10 private schools about symptoms, as well as knowing when to get tested.
“We don’t know enough to say kids shouldn’t play football. Everyone around the athlete needs to be educated on this subject,” Hotz said. “There needs to be a lot more evaluation, and the message to parents is that they want to make sure the people around your kid are trained. I think in the past coaches would tell athletes to just suck it up and get back out there, but we have a lot more information now that shows that’s just not the right thing to do.”
The message was extended to the participants of the Mom’s Clinic.
Troy Drayton, who played in the NFL from 1993-2001, is a master trainer for USA Football and helped organize the event.
“With the techniques that we’re starting to teach kids, I think it’s all about education, and that’ll go a long way in keeping this a safe sport,” said Drayton, who played for the Dolphins from 1996-99 and now lives in Coral Springs. “I wouldn’t have a problem with my kid playing.”
The safety clinic ended with drills, which included stretching, warmups and tackling demonstrations.
One of the moms, Tara Rogers, 43, still encourages her 9-year-old daughter to play youth football despite recent discoveries about the long-term effects of concussions.
“I don’t particularly want her to get a concussion, but if she wants to play, I’ll support her,” said Rogers, a mother of three. “I’ve learned how to better protect her and prepare her, as well as show her how to properly tackle.”