For many people, the return of fall is marked with crashing shoulder pads and Friday night lights. Football season is back. But in Illinois, there is something else in the air this year.
This is the first football season since legislation was proposed banning youth football for Illinois kids under 12 years old. The bill, sponsored by Representative Carol Sente, roused debate from parents and legislators about safety and parent’s rights. It passed in committee, but died before reaching the floor. Rep. Sente said parents “need more time to absorb the evidence.”
In the past few years, bodies like the Illinois High School Association have made numerous policy changes to reduce concussions in football. Among the changes was capping the amount of games athletes can play in a week and tweaking in-season contact protocols for practices. They also worked to make sure officials can recognize concussions and pull kids out of the game to be looked over by medical staff.
"Anytime an official sends a player out of the game for displaying those type of symptoms, the official is required to submit a report through our website that tells us," said Sam Know, assistant executive director at the IHSA. "And then we forward that to the school so everybody is aware of what happened."
If cleared by a medical professional on the sideline, athletes may return to the action that day. Things like that worry Dr. Chris Nowinski. He's the co-founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, and was a scientific advisor for Rep. Sente's CTE Prevention Act.
"The practice of putting people back in (the game) who you were worried about is inherently risky," he said. "There have been many, many times, even at the NFL level with theoretically the top doctors and independent doctors, they've put people back in who after the game they realize, 'Oh, shoot, they did have a concussion.'"
Concussion symptoms, in some cases, may not be obvious until hours or days later. This makes the issue more complicated in the world of youth football where the statewide reporting and on-site medical professionals of groups like the IHSA often don't exist.
In Sandwich, youth football can begin at age 5. The 5 and 6-year-olds play in full-pads in the non-competitive Dynomite League. The competitive program begins for kids 7 to 13.
Kyle Pennington is the publicist for Sandwich Youth Tackle Football as well as a coach for the "superlight" team. He says in Sandwich they've seen a slight drop off, but other local teams have seen a more significant decline in participation since the CTE Prevention Act was discussed in the spring.
Coaches had to take a four-hour certification course on concussions, and he said they've been focused on "heads-up tackling" in hopes of making the hits safer.
"So instead of putting your head in front of the tackler, you're wrapping and twisting almost like a gator roll. Instead of having those high impacts, and it seems to be helping," said Pennington. "We practice that and it hasn't hurt our ability to tackle. Our superlights and lightweights are undefeated right now."
He also thinks that waiting until kids are 12 could result in bigger, stronger kids learning bad tackling habits and, thus, more injuries.
"You pull that football away until they're 12, you're going to watch your concussion rate double for 12-year-olds," he said.
Dr. Nowinski doesn't believe it makes a difference how kids tackle. It's the consistent impact that is the problem.
"The science is black and white that those hits that don't look that hard to the naked eye are actually very damaging to a brain that is less prepared to take those hits," he said.
He doesn’t think teaching earlier is the answer, and that research shows taking hits at younger ages has the potential to show effects later in life.
"So if you started at 5 instead of 14," said Dr. Nowinski. "Those who got CTE complained of symptoms over 20 years earlier. That's a huge amount of time and quality of life to lose. It makes sense scientifically. We're talking about now hundreds of brains that we've looked at, so this is a statistically very significant association."
At Sandwich, Pennington said that there haven't been any concussions on any of his teams since he started coaching a few years ago, and that he wasn't aware of a single concussion in the program last year.
However, IHSA is reporting an increase in concussions in the past few years, which they hope is in part due to increased reporting. They've also seen a dip in participation.
High school and college football, according to a 2013 study from the Institute of Medicine, has the highest reported concussion rate of any sport. Other studies recently placed girls sports like soccer higher. Dr. Nowinski argues this is an issue of sample size.
Although the CTE Prevention Act is dead right now in Illinois, expect similar legislation to keep popping up. In the last year, bills have been presented in three other states.