Are coaches to blame?
Sports Editors Gilbert Coyle and Benjamin Deans debate the merits of recently-tabled legislation
By Benjamin Deans
Assistant Sports Editor
The issue of concussions is at a tipping point in varsity sports. Queen’s Athletics Therapy Services reported 28 concussions to varsity athletes in 2009-10. But that number rose to 48 last season.
Concussions are unpredictable and severe. They can lead to short-term nausea and memory loss and long-term neurological diseases.
Holding coaches legally responsible for deciding when varsity athletes should return to play would be an important step forward. At the moment, the decision doesn’t come back to any one person. When no one’s getting the blame, no one’s going to step in and refuse to let an athlete back into the game.
Second-impact syndrome must be considered. The New York Times reported that “once a person suffers a concussion, he is as much as four times more likely to sustain a second one.” The best way for athletes to avoid second-impact syndrome is to wait until concussions symptoms are gone before returning to play.
Varsity athletes shouldn’t be held responsible for deciding when to return. There’s already too much pressure on them to win games. Forcing varsity athletes to balance safety and competition will lower the level of competition.
Coaches are already responsible for several off-field issues like travel plans, preseason living arrangements, off-season training agendas and ensuring academic eligibility. Concussions wouldn’t be anything new.
Varsity coaches know their athletes better than anyone else does. They see them almost every day.
Athletes will follow their coaches’ orders. Coaches have athletes’ trust and respect more than any athletic therapist.
Putting it in law makes the decision more serious and puts something at stake for coaches. They will err on the side of caution when a concussed athlete is about to return to play.
Second-impact syndrome is replacing fun with fear — and things won’t change until the law comes into play. Making varsity coaches legally responsible for deciding when athletes should return to play is the first step in bringing about change.
By Gilbert Coyle
The alarming increase in reported concussions to Queen’s athletes last season means university sports authorities need to address a major health concern. Member of Parliament Glenn Thibeault’s proposal to develop a better framework for preventing and managing concussions in amateur sports is a progressive and necessary approach, but his intention to make Canadian coaches legally accountable for playing concussed athletes is misguided.
University sport has to address the concussion issue on a macro level — not a micro one. They need to create an interuniversity network within the OUA to collect concussion data and co-ordinate with participating universities to properly monitor concussed athletes. It shouldn’t be done by including unqualified coaches in the decision-making process.
Queen’s Athletics pays its varsity head coaches to win games. And just like every other university in the OUA, Queen’s pays its medical professionals to make medical decisions.
Queen’s Athletic Therapy Services employs certified therapists who follow guidelines set by the Concussion in Sport Group, an organization made up of the world’s leading neurologists. Therapists supervise and work closely with the student trainers for each varsity team. These student trainers go to every practice, travel with the team and maintain daily contact with coaches.
Concussed athletes meet with certified therapists on a daily basis. Therapists decide if and when a concussed athlete can return to action. Student trainers relay these instructions to head coaches. Head coaches don’t make these decisions so they shouldn’t be held accountable if mistakes are made.
If the OUA wants to get serious about dealing with concussions, it should implement a better system to prevent concussed players from playing. It should hire a chief athletic therapist who co-ordinates with colleagues from participating institutions.
An interuniversity system of certified professionals who monitor concussed athletes would ensure that coaches couldn’t use players who haven’t been cleared to play. Instead, professionals from the OUA and its participating institutions could establish whether or not athletes can return to action. Those who haven’t been cleared by appropriate medical authorities would automatically become ineligible on official OUA game sheets.
Concussions are a big deal and university sport should treat them as such. Coaches aren’t doctors — let’s keep it that way.