By Jackie Contreras, Matt Dresens and Aleah Floyd
BU News Service
This article was originally published in the Cambridge Chronicle.
Last year, 14 percent of Cambridge students in grades six to eight who were on sports teams experienced concussion symptoms, according to a survey conducted by the Cambridge Public Health Department. A 2016 study found almost as many Cambridge Rindge and Latin School athletes also suffered symptoms.
Head injuries have always been an issue in sports, but recently researchers have discovered the profound impact of concussions and the trickle-down effect these injuries have on youth sports.
A Boston University-led study published in January found head injuries, not just concussions, can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. According to the study, “head injuries can cause blood vessels to leak proteins into adjacent brain tissues, inflaming them. CTE is a brain disease characterized by accumulation of tau protein around the brain’s blood vessels.”
AD: Students more aware of symptoms
Tom Arria, the Cambridge Public Schools athletic director, said even before recent discoveries were published, he has been cautious about head injuries and concussions.
“We do our very best to protect every student anyway,” Arria said in a telephone interview. “That’s one of our primary responsibilities — to provide a safe environment for kids to participate in athletics and make it as safe as it can be.”
The protocols and policies in place in the school district go by state law. Coaches, trainers, athletes and parents have to go through annual online concussion education courses, according to Arria. Parents and athletes also have to sign forms acknowledging the risks of head injury in contact sports.
Arria said over the years he’s witnessed more self-reporting from students because they are more aware of symptoms. One step Cambridge has taken is the implementation of full-time athletic trainers. This is key to addressing the students in terms of their health, safety and well-being, Arria said.
″[Our trainers] can look out for students because they know them so well,” Arria said. “They can identify with a student right away and they can see things … [that] don’t look right and they can address it and make a determination.”
‘Kids still want to play’
While some parents may be reluctant to sign children up for teams, many recognize the natural risks most sports pose and still encourage youth sports.
One alternative to full contact sports is the Cambridge Youth Flag Football League, which offers non-contact football to boys and girls from first to eighth grade, teaching them teamwork, sportsmanship and fundamentals, according to league President Kellie DeJon.
DeJon said as a parent herself, she is also concerned, but encourages participants to educate themselves about possible risks.
“Kids still want to play,” DeJon said in a phone interview. “It’s important that we are able to teach them the fundamentals of the game without the tackling, so that when they reach high school [football], if they go on to play, they are better equipped to play properly.”
‘Risk in everything they do’
On a recent Monday night, parents watched as their children took to the ice at Simoni Rink on Gore Street.
Several parents of Mite-A players, a team for eight-year-olds, said they were not too worried yet about the research on brain trauma due to repeated hitting. They want their children, who are still young, to play hockey.
Susan Walsh, a West Cambridge resident, said the new findings about head injuries and concussions do not discourage her from allowing her son to play youth hockey.
“There’s risk in everything they do and I think if the reward is great enough, it’s worth it for them to be out there,” Walsh said, “The awareness is excellent. The parents know if they do get hit … now you can err on the side of caution, whereas when we were young, the awareness wasn’t there.”
Wenlong Yang, also from West Cambridge, approved of his two sons’ involvement, but has not thought about whether he will let them play once they get older.
“They are small, so they don’t have much force and they don’t skate very fast, so the impact isn’t that big,” said Yang. “I think when you’re like 15 or 16 you get bigger and more dangerous. At that age, I think it depends.”
Parents discuss concerns they have about their children playing contact sports at Simoni Memorial Rink in Cambridge, Mass. Feb. 19, 2018. Video by Jackie Contreras / BU News Service