Hamilton’s Derrick Porter attempts to put a move on Boulder Creek offensive lineman Preston Shepherd. Nationally, participation in high school football has dropped 15 percent.

The Barrow Neurological Institute released its newest findings on concussions in high school sports with a poll showing that one-third of the parents around the Valley will not allow their kids to play football. 

The survey results stand consistent with the participation levels in football throughout Arizona. According to the National Federation of State High School Association, 17,858 athletes played high school football last year, a 15 percent decline from the previous season, in which 20,929 played. 

While the participation rates show a decline, the survey also showed that 85 percent of parents in the Valley would still allow their kids to play other contact sports. 

Dr. Javier Cardenas, the director of the Barrow Concussion and Brain Injury Center at Barrow Neurological Institute, said parents continue to view football as more dangerous than other contact sports. 

Cardenas serves on the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee, working as an unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant and sideline observer at Arizona Cardinals home games. He also serves as a sideline concussion observer at Arizona State University home games. Cardenas said that there is no question that football is the spotlight sport for concussions. 

“(It is) in terms of CTE and the evaluation of deceased football players and recording this incidence,” Cardenas said. “That indeed has the greatest concern for the people who are participating in athletics.” 

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a degenerative brain disease found in those with a history of repetitive brain trauma. In CTE, a protein called tau forms clumps that slowly spread, killing brain cells. 

Even though participation in football is declining, high school athletes continue to play because of the protections and policies that are being implemented to prevent concussions. 

Since 2011, the Barrow Neurological Institute and the Arizona Interscholastic Association have partnered up to provide concussion education to more than 350,000 Arizona high school athletes via Barrow’s Brainbook. 

The AIA has also been one of the nation’s leaders in implementing policies relating to the prevention of concussions. 

In 2011, the association developed a helmetdislodgement rule that was later adopted by the NFSH in 2012. The NFSH also adopted Arizona’s blindside-block rule that the AIA established in 2016. 

Even though parents know the risks that playing football brings, some still feel safe allowing their children to play because of the policies and precautions being implemented to make the game as safe as possible. 

Jodi Haire, mother of Mountain Pointe High player Will Haire, said he loves playing football so she would never pull him away from the sport. She said he has become smarter about playing football and preventing concussions because of the education he has received on brain injury. 

“He knows about the concussions. He always has, but he’s smart about it, or at least he’s much smarter now,” Haire said. “With the concussion testing in school and teaching them to be safer with their helmets. I tell him all the time, ‘If you feel something in the game, like you have a concussion, then you need to take yourself out.’” 

Mark McMillian is an eight-year NFL veteran and his son Mark Jr. plays wide receiver for the 5A state champion Williams Field Blackhawks. McMillian didn’t allow his son to play football until his freshman year of high school.

“He knows the risk of going out there and sustaining concussions,” McMillian said. “So, he knows the risk it wasn’t until he came to me and said he was serious about playing so I allowed him to play.”

While knowing the risks as a former player, McMillian acknowledged that the precautions and procedures of the game have come a long way. He also feels Arizona is at the leading edge in trying to make the sport as safe as possible.

Barrow has delivered more than 150,000 baseline concussion tests and 23,000 post-injury concussion tests to Arizona high school athletes. 

Cardenas said the Barrow Neurological Institute also estimated a total of $2 million in health-care savings for athletes in the Valley. Arizona was also the second state in the nation to offer a concussion health insurance policy to all AIA athletes. 

“As a parent, that’s refreshing to know because back in the day there was a time where a kid would get his bell rung and he wouldn’t say anything, the trainers weren’t exactly qualified to diagnose it and they just put the kid back in the game,” McMillian said. “Now, coaches are more educated, more aware of it and they can see the signs and symptoms in their players.”

The participation numbers for football in Arizona are declining, but according to the NFSH overall participation numbers for all sports throughout the United States increased for the 28th consecutive year. 

With the increase in numbers, Cardenas is set out to make every sport safe. 

“We continue to endorse participation in athletic activity and we continue to do our best to make it as safe as possible and work on prevention education and working on treatment to provide for the Arizona Community,” Cardenas said. “Lastly, we continue to be leaders in this field and try to set an example for the nation.” 


– Contact Greg Macafee at gmacafee@timespublications.com or at 480-898-5630 or follow @greg_macafee on Twitter.

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