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MCPS Starts Concussion Testing, But Is It Enough?

By Aaron Kraut

Wednesday - 8/21/2013, 12:55pm  ET

Wootton vs. Walter Johnson, Flickr photo by markxmas03

Last week, for the first time, all Montgomery County Public School high school athletes went through mandatory baseline concussion testing, designed to help coaches and parents recognize concussions in students throughout the upcoming fall sports season.

But one Bethesda parent who delved into the issue after his son sustained a serious concussion while playing JV football thinks baseline testing is not enough.

Tom Hearn, who runs a Twitter account called ConcussionMCPS and who has testified in front of the Board of Education about concussion prevention, said he would like to see the county take a more active approach toward preventing concussions in its high school football programs. That approach, Hearn said, would need to include training coaches how to teach proper tackling technique, limiting full contact practices and assigning an athletic trainer to each school.

MCPS has indicated it would cost between $2 million to $3 million per year to provide athletic trainers to each of the county’s 25 high schools. This year, 11, including Whitman and Walter Johnson will have trainers assigned to work 25 to 30 hours a week.

“I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say you can’t coach football if you haven’t taken the coaching course that teaches the basic fundamentals,” Hearn said. “To me, [baseline testing] is a bit like putting the gutters on before you put the roof on.”

This week, Hearn published an email he sent to MCPS Athletic Director William Beattie, Montgomery County Chief Health Officer Ulder Tillman and Joan Glick, the Health and Human Services staffer in charge of health in MCPS, about a recent football coaches meeting he went to at an undisclosed school.

At the meeting, the high school football coach told parents that when teaching tackling he teaches players to “put your face mask on the football,” and “bite the football,” techniques that run contrary to the “Heads Up” tackling form now being pushed at all levels across the country to prevent neck injuries and concussions.

Though Hearn redacted the name of the school and coach in the email, his Twitter account points toward a parent-coaches meeting with Whitman High School varsity coach Jim Kuhn. Hearn’s son suffered a sever concussion while playing JV football for Whitman during the 2011-2012 season.

Whitman has had baseline concussion testing for nine years. Last year, MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr recommended $75,000 in his budget toward baseline concussion testing for all athletes at all high schools. In June, the Board of Education approved $100,000 toward contracts with medical providers to conduct the tests.

Hearn said he would like to see Montgomery County football coaches be required to take a National Federation of High School Athletic Associations course in football coaching that promotes safer tackling techniques.

Fairfax County Public Schools this summer became the first school district to make Heads Up training mandatory for all of its high school football coaches.

He’s also advocated for a limit of two full-contact practice sessions a week, instead of the three or four that county high schools now go through.

“It’s not just the big hits, but it’s the repetitive hits that lead to concussions,” Hearn said. “The 650 to 1,000 sub-concussive hits to the heads that players go through, it’s an accumulation of the little hits that’s where the idea of reducing the number of full contact practices comes in.”

The NFL has limited the number of full-contact padded practices to 14 during the course of the 17-week regular season with 11 of those conducted during the first 11 weeks of the season. College football conferences have followed suit.

Hearn said he’s thought a lot about the argument that he’s fighting a losing cause, that playing football at any degree is dangerous.

“I’m not at the point of saying outlaw football or have it done by clubs instead of the schools, but at the very least, the dangers ought to be minimized as much as possibly by the people running it.” Hearn said.

On Saturday, Whitman’s varsity and JV teams will scrimmage nearby Landon School in an annual pre-first-day-of-school game. Hearn said he found it ironic that Landon signed up for a “Heads Up Tackling” pilot program.

“Before the first snap, I think Landon’s already won,” Hearn said.

Flickr photo by markxmas03