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Florida Mandates Concussion Training for High School Athletes

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
George Jenkins High School
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

There's growing concern about the risks of concussions in young athletes. For years, high school coaches have had to take courses on the dangers of head injuries. This year, for the first time, all high school athletes in Florida are required to educate themselves about concussions before they can compete.

As the George Jenkins High School football team practices in the mid-August heat, senior Gavin Engle takes a knee on the sidelines. He was injured in a helmet to helmet collision three days before, and realized he was feeling the effects of a concussion. "I kind of laid on the ground for a second," Gavin says. "It took me a minute to get it together. The light hurts, your head hurts, it hurts your eyes, it just makes everything feel like it's pounding."

Gavin stopped playing and saw a doctor -- but state officials worry that not all athletes would take themselves out of action.

So, the governing body for the state's high school sports passed a new rule this summer. The Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) has mandated that all athletes have to watch a video about concussions and sign a form saying they understand concussion risks. Florida schools are the first in the country to take this step, and football programs --with their big rosters and summertime practices -- are already dealing with the extra paperwork.

Richard Tate is the football coach at George Jenkins.  Tate says he understands that concussions are a big safety issue in his sport. "Football is a violent sport," he says. "No game is set up on every play that you're supposed to hit somebody and move them out of the way, like football is."

But along with the video, Tate says coaches need medical help in making the right call.

"I'm all for the knowledge you're trying to gain by watching a video," Tate says, "but I'm a football coach and not a doctor. So I think along with the state getting so excited about the bringing everybody up to speed on a concussion and the seriousness of that, they need to follow up and help us on this level  with some certified people who can help us."

The athletic director of George Jenkins High School, Jestin Bailey, is unhappy with the amount of paperwork this mandate is generating for the school, with its one thousand student athletes. But on the other hand, he concedes, "it's not going to hurt the kids to watch it.  And if it helps one kid, then it's probably worth it."

Justin Harrison of the Florida High School Athletic Association says the idea is to educate as many people as possible, so that athletes -- and not just coaches -- can recognize concussion symptoms in  other players.

"If you consider football an example," Harrison says, "you know there are 22 folks on the field at one time, 22 players, so instead of educating just coaches, let's educate the 22 on the field."

A study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that national concussion diagnosis rates for high school sports have more than doubled from 2005-2006 to 2011-2012, due in part to increased awareness of the problem.

 Coach Tate says there's more risk of concussion now because high school athletes are far stronger and bigger than they were a generation ago. And high tech helmets, he says,  with their superior protection, give the players the confidence to hit much harder. Coaches, he says, are not going to discourage that. "If you're going to win a football game, especially in this area, you better have some guys that don't mind running into people."

There will be plenty of hits in the months ahead as high school football season gets underway. And the FHSAA says it will be checking to make sure all the athletes have studied up on concussions.

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Robin is Senior Editor at WUSF, spearheading the station's podcasting initiatives and helping to guide the vision for special reporting projects and creative storytelling. She hosts the weekly current affairs program, Florida Matters, on WUSF and also created The Zest, the station's podcast that's all about food, which she continues to host and serve as senior producer.