Football players and female athletes are the most susceptible to concussions, according to statewide concussion data released by the Kansas State High School Activities Association. 

In total, Kansas high school athletes suffered 1,818 concussions last school year. Football accounted for nearly half (903) of all reported concussions. A state-high 14,661 athletes participated in football last year with 6.16% of them suffering a concussion, another state high. 

“It was interesting to see the total numbers,” said Chris Brown, the athletic trainer at both Parsons and Labette County high schools.  This is the first year they’ve really done a compilation of all this. Number wise, it didn’t surprise me. Football is going to lead the category.” 

The nature of football, a high collision sport, has drawn more scrutiny across the country when it comes to players suffering concussions.

“More kids go out for football than any other sport, so there will be more instances. It’s a contact sport too,” Labette County athletic director and football coach Sean Price said. “I’m not surprised by the football numbers.” 

As coaches and athletic trainers aim to combat the issue, technique and form tackling have been points of emphasis.

“One of the big things is tackling and not leading with your head,” Brown said. “They talk about ‘heads up tackling.’ We don’t want kids leading with the crown of their helmet. That’s a big deal that we’re focused on.” 

Wrestling accounted for the second-most concussions in Kansas with 149 total reports. The sport had a 2.98% incidence rate out of 5,000 participants.

Female athletes were also disproportionately susceptible to concussions.

In nearly every matching sport in the state, girls suffered more concussions and higher incidence rates. 

The exception is wrestling. While girls only suffered 10 concussions to 139 by boys, girls still suffered the injury at a 3.62% rate compared to 2.94% for their male counterparts.

Girls basketball reported 137 concussions at a 2.10% incidence rate compared to 66 at a 0.75% rate in boys basketball. Girls soccer players suffered 128 concussions at a 3.63% rate compared to the 89 total instances and 2.05% rate of boys soccer players.

Behind only football and male wrestlers, girls basketball, girls soccer and volleyball were the top contributors to concussions in the state. Volleyball players in Kansas suffered 115 concussions in 2018-19 at a 1.39% rate, one of the highest rates of any sport with over 5,000 statewide participants. 

Even girls golf suffered twice as many concussions (four) as boys golf (two). 

“It comes down to the strength of the girls compared to boys,” Brown said. “For example, in soccer, a boy can brace his body a little better when they’re going up for a header compared to girls.” 

A 2017 study by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons found that in matched sports, girls are 12.1% more likely to suffer concussions. That study tracked concussions using data from the High School Reporting Information Online system from 2005-15. 

That same study said that the neck muscles in girls aren’t as developed as they are in boys, which could be one of the causes of the trend. 

KSHSAA’s data on concussions was submitted to the High School RIO’s ongoing study into injuries at the school level. The study is conducted by the Colorado School of Public Health. According to KSHSAA’s press release, because Kansas does not track athlete exposures, it isn’t possible to compare Kansas’ rates to the national average. 

“I’m glad the state is keeping track of the data for sure,” Parsons athletic director Rob Barcus said. “We’re making sure safety is first. The state is checking to make sure that’s the case. It’s holding schools more accountable.” 

According to Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data in 2017, 15% of high school athletes nationwide experience one or more concussions, with 6% suffering two or more. The CDC also found that male athletes were more likely to report concussions compared to females, while data from the University of Pittsburgh states that half of all concussions go unreported. 

Schools across the state are moving away from the tough-it-out culture and encouraging athletes to seek medical attention if concussion symptoms arise. 

“That’s a fear you fight,” Barcus said. “We try to stress to them that safety is more important than winning. We don’t want to ever have missed something that we should’ve seen.” 

“I don’t want a kid going home, going to sleep and not waking up,” Price added. “I can live with a lot of losses. But I can’t live with a kid getting a brain injury that would kill them or disable them because they didn’t say something.” 

KSHSAA says that of all reported concussions in 2018-19, 60.5% were reported as the athlete’s first-ever concussion. 22% of concussions were reported as not knowing whether or not the athlete had previously suffered one. 63% of concussions happened in a competitive setting, while 37%, over a third, happened in practice. 

“The practice numbers surprise me,” Price said. “We don’t go live in practice. In my years here, we’ve had about five concussions and all of them were in a game.” 

Brown echoed the same sentiment about over a third of concussions coming outside of competition.

“That number definitely is a little shocking,” Brown said. “It could come down to having too much live practice. When it comes to drills, you want to avoid concussive forces.” 

Price said his team doesn’t go full-speed during contact portions of practice while also steering away from old school drills such as the Oklahoma drill, which was banned by the NFL earlier this year.

“You try to avoid them in practice,” Price said. “Why hurt yourself? We don’t do drills like the Oklahoma drill where kids are running from 10 yards out and hitting each other. You’re elevating your chances for concussions when you do that.” 

KSHSAA schools, which were first required to submit concussion data last year, are again required to do so in 2019-20. 

“We believe it is important to have Kansas specific concussion data to truly understand at what level sport concussions are affecting our student participants. Sport related concussions don’t necessarily happen at a high rate compared to some other injuries, but due to the significance of the injury, proper recognition and management are extremely important,” said Brent Unruh, KSHSAA office manager and sports medicine liaison in the release. “As this dataset continues to grow and trends begin to emerge, KSHSAA leadership, including the association’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee can make better informed decisions related to risk minimization and student safety.”

Cross country was the safest sport related to concussions last year with just one reported instance. Even band members statewide suffered more concussions with four total reported. 

KSHSAA also reported the average number of days a player was out before being released, with the average hovering around two to three weeks. Football players were out for an average of 18.72 days, while wrestlers missed an average 23.6 days. 

“I think two weeks is fair,” Brown said. “There are some kids who get hit on a Friday night and might be dealing with some symptoms into Monday. Their headaches can linger and we can’t clear them.” 

As KSHSAA and the country continues to fight to bring down concussion rates, Brown feels one fix is ensuring each school district has an athletic trainer on staff.

“The biggest thing that can be done is making sure that every high school has access to an athletic trainer,” Brown said. “That can ensure concussions are treated properly. One of the biggest things of concussion education is making sure a trainer is accessible. I think every state needs to push something that says every high school needs a trainer.”

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