AUSTIN (KXAN) — As teachers and students get ready to start a new school year, high school football coaches and their players are already on the field starting practice before the season starts.
Each year, thousands of student athletes are injured playing sports in Texas. But data from the University Interscholastic League (UIL) paints only a small part of the picture.
“Certainly a representative sample, but it has not been comprehensive including every high school,” said UIL Deputy Director, Jamey Harrison.
The only sport that’s been required to report injuries to UIL is football. And of the 1,201 UIL high schools with football teams, only a small fraction of schools have been required to report. During the regular season, it’s about 16 percent. Schools in the playoffs are also required to report injuries. However, there’s been no monitoring or penalties for schools that do not report.
“That is a model that we found to be not terribly effective, it worked when it was first introduced many, many years ago – but it was not very effective,” said Harrison.
Harrison says the current method of collecting data was never meant to be scientific, only requiring district chair schools to report. In each of UIL’s six conferences, there’s 32 districts, each with a district chair, for a total of 192 district chairs for football in Texas.
Now, UIL is teaming up with medical researchers to better track and monitor injuries across the state.
“When I realized there was no reliable data collection platform or reporting system, I didn’t really believe it,” said Dr. Jayson Adelotte, a trauma surgeon at the University Medical Center Brackenridge. “While there has been some reporting of data, it has not been mandatory across the state, it has not been uniform and there’s really been nowhere to report it.”
“My body… just shut off”—Jasiel Favors’
Dr. Aydelotte first got interested in the issue back in 2014, when he was the surgeon on-call one day at Brackenridge. A young man was rushed to the hospital with a spinal cord injury, hurt while playing football.
“One of the things that peaked my curiosity was, ‘I wonder how often we saw that?’ Kids getting injured playing any kind of sport and had a spinal cord injury,” said Dr. Aydelotte.
He wanted to find out how many student athletes suffered serious injuries, like spinal cord injuries. But after doing research, Dr. Aydelotte says he couldn’t find reliable data. While the Texas Department of State Health Services keeps track of traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries, it doesn’t distinguish whether they happened during sanctioned sporting events. He also couldn’t get the numbers of spinal cord injuries from UIL.
“Outside of football in Texas, we don’t have really any numbers,” said Kevin Rix, Injury Prevention Coordinator at University Medical Center Brackenridge. “Especially in girls’ sports. Girls’ sports has been something that gets under-reported. But we know that from just generic national numbers, women’s soccer has a lot of injuries.”
Dr. Aydelotte and Rix teamed up to try and solve the problem, creating a pilot program with UIL to track serious injuries in which players are admitted to the hospital. Through the program, data will be collected on a HIPAA-secure server and all identifying information removed. The data will then be presented to the UIL Medical Advisory Committee, and then will be transparent to the public. The tracking will start with 500 schools, eventually expanding to all schools. In the future, they hope to also track a wider set of injuries.
The main goal of the project: identify areas of potential injury prevention.
“I think that what it will do is, it will allow us as a state to make decisions as a state, whether we’re going to make field changes or equipment changes. We may discover something we just didn’t really anticipate.”
Rix says once there’s more data, specialists like himself can turn around and create new programs and interventions, working to keep people safe, playing sports longer.
“What we do want is parents to be able to make informed decisions for their kids,” said Harrison. “I’m a parent myself, I want as much information as I can have when it comes to keeping my child safe.”
But before the program can launch, they need funding. Dr. Aydelotte says they’re seeking a medical research university to help get it off the ground and says several have expressed interest.
This fall, a collaboration between UIL and the University of Texas Southwestern will implement a pilot program that focuses on concussions. The program will create a platform to report suspected concussions that happen during UIL activities while monitoring the numbers over time.
Life after a spinal cord injury
It only took one play to change 17-year-old Jasiel Favors’ life. The Round Rock sophomore suffered a spinal cord injury last year playing football for Stony Point High School.
“I remember the game,” said Favors. “I was on special teams on kickoff. I was running down the field full speed. I went for the tackle head-down, and I went on a head-to-head collision, and then my body just kind of like, just shut off.”
“He started calling, ‘Mom, I can’t move my legs, mom I can’t move my legs’. And I’m like, ‘Hold on Jay, I’m coming,” his mother, Debra Favors, remembers.
Jasiel’s dreams of making the varsity team suddenly turned into dreams of hoping to walk again.
“It’s hard, I don’t put this on nobody. It’s really, really hard,” said Debra.
Debra says one of the hardest parts is figuring out what to do next. She says their biggest need right now is a wheelchair accessible van but she has to find the money for it first. She has been able to find little financial help for the family, aside from nonprofit organizations reaching out to her.
Due to the cost, Jasiel only gets two hours of rehabilitation a week. He says more is needed.
“When I go to rehab it’s like a relief because there’s like a lot of people that can relate to you… because me and everyone at rehab are going through the same thing. We all want the same thing, we all want to walk.”
While Jasiel has his ups and downs, he tries to be hopeful.
“People go through tragedies, but you’ve got to deal with the cards life gives you, you’ve got to play them. I don’t want anyone losing hope or thinking that I won’t move anything or walk again. Anything’s possible.”
As awareness around football-related injuries grows, schools and coaches across the country are changing how their athletes practice.
The Heads Up Football program, which is endorsed and promoted by the NFL, was created to guide coaches through drills developed to reinforce proper tackling and blocking mechanics that reduce helmet contact. The clinics also educate coaches on recognizing and responding to concussions, in case their players are injured.
At Lehman High School in Kyle, the concern over concussions has one coach using a different tackling technique during practice. Coach Todd Raymond has his players lead with their shoulder and the head goes behind, towards the hip.