As another high school football season begins, some Aiken County teams are increasing their efforts to keep players safe.
Emergency medical technicians and athletic trainers have long been a part of gameday staffs, but high school athletes are getting more access to trainers this year. Certified athletic trainer Ashle Cooper, entering her eighth season assisting the Midland Valley football team, not only covers the Mustangs’ sideline but is now at the school full-time, offering follow-up help to players who are injured during practices or games.
“Now that I’m here during the day, they’re able to see me at any time,” she said. “So it keeps me with a close connection with them.”
Keeping an eye on high school athletes has increased in priority. Recent discoveries of long-term consequences linked to concussions have affected football at every level, from recreation leagues to the NFL.
The South Carolina High School League requires all coaches, even volunteers, of every high school sport to take a concussion course from the National Federation of State High School Associations each year.
The Georgia High School Association adopted a concussion policy in 2010 that puts the decision on whether an athlete can return to play in the hands of a health-care professional.
Cooper, an employee of the sports medicine center at Georgia Health Sciences University, said treating concussions starts before an injury occurs.
“We have protocol that we follow that was put together by our team at the hospital, so preseason we meet with the parents and let them know what that protocol is,” she said. “We talk with the guys about why it’s dangerous and why they shouldn’t hide these signs and symptoms. We do concussion testing, baseline testing. So whenever they get injured, obviously they report it, we follow through that protocol and we can do follow-up testing.”
Ultimately a concussed athlete must be cleared by a physician before returning to action, Cooper said. Midland Valley coach Rick Knight said the extra attention placed on player safety is a step in the right direction.
“We’re very excited at the fact that the career center and school district allowed us to get (Cooper) in here,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anybody better, and I think it’s having a big influence on the rest of our school district.”
Cooper said before this year no Aiken County high school had a full-time certified athletic trainer.
North Augusta High School added one this fall, which athletic director and football coach Dan Pippin said has improved the program.
“We’ve got a full-time trainer now, and it’s pretty cool for the kids. I’m happy about it,” he said. “Times have changed a ton in this area. You’ve got to be proactive about it.”
Pippin said his football players have received baseline training for concussions and students are working with trainers to gain knowledge and experience in dealing with injuries.
“We did it through our career and technology education, and the kids really want to get into occupational health,” Pippin said. “It’s good for them, because there’s a ton of scholarships in that area.”
Establishing baseline tests for treating individual players at risk for concussions allows football coaches and their staff to be more prepared to deal with head injuries.
Cooper said the Sport Concussion Assessment Tool (SCAT2) offers assistance on the sideline during a game or practice.
“We use the SCAT2 as an assessment tool on the sideline, and afterward we can follow up with an additional SCAT2 and partner that with the baseline testing,” she said.
“There’s no set time frame to returning, it just depends on how they do. They start the “Return-to-Play” protocol and work their way through that. If they can work their way through it symptom-free then they’re able to go back to full contact.”
Pippin said the extra attention to player safety, especially regarding concussions, is a positive but distinct separation from how football injuries were treated in the past.
“It has changed so much from when I was playing,” he said. “I remember in college getting hit on a Friday, and I couldn’t remember where my apartment was. Then you go play Saturday. You don’t do that anymore.”