MHSAA pilot program to offer sideline concussion tests

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

The Michigan High School Athletic Association announced Wednesday it will start a pilot program to install rapid, easy-to-administer concussion testing on the sidelines at football games starting this fall.

Jack Roberts, executive director of the MHSAA, told The Detroit News the program will start with between 40 and 100 schools, with the long-term goal being for every team in every sport to eventually have access to the testing.

"What we're looking for are systems that are inexpensive enough that schools could reasonably apply the solution to all the sports on all levels. We are seeking a system that is simple enough to use and does not require a lot of training so that there could be multiple persons at multiple venues when schools are having practices and contests at multiple venues in a number of sports simultaneously," Roberts said. "And the third thing we're looking for is for this to be an electronic solution so that the system produces immediate reports and then permanent records for the school and MHSAA."

The MHSAA is looking at a number of possible tests, and pilot schools would be able to have some say in the test they choose. The one with some of the best reviews if the King-Devick test, which has a good reputation thanks to its endorsement from the Mayo Clinic.

That test asks athletes to read a series of numbers, as fast as possible. A stopwatch and a score sheet helps determine if the time lapse, and of course the actual accuracy, was acceptable, or showed signs of a concussion. The test, available on an app, can be administered by anybody, from a doctor to a trainer to a parent.

Today, most high school football teams use a less-scientific approach, from looking for wobbly knees to applying the follow-the-finger test. If a player shows any signs of a concussion, he is taken out of the game and is not to return before cleared by a physician.

"It's a great idea, anything to help with the kids' safety," said Garrett Grundman, head varsity football coach at Croswell-Lexington. "Obviously, there's gonna have to be somebody trained, but it's definitely gonna help."

Grundman was a wide receiver and quarterback at NAIA school Graceland University in Iowa, and suffered multiple concussions. As a coach, he sees between and four and five kids a season that need in-game testing.

"I've been strict," he said.

Thomas Wilcher, varsity football coach at Detroit Cass Tech, said he had one kid tested during a game this season.

Cass Tech has a trainer, nurse and EMS worker on the sidelines during football games.

"The MHSAA is doing a lot right now, making everybody aware," Wilcher said. "But I think the MHSAA has got to figure out a way to fund it."

As Wilcher pointed out, not all schools are on the same level, financially. Some schools can afford the best, state-of-the-art helmets, while others struggle just to pay for jerseys.

"If you can't find the funding, I think you have to find the alternative," Wilcher said.

Roberts, of the MHSAA, said there are a number of different tests being looked at, and he acknowledged money can be an issue.

The MHSAA's goal is to eventually have testing available for every team in every sport in practices and games. The cost would depend on the size of the school. The King-Devick test, for instance, costs as little as $250 a year for a school with just 30 athletes, and as much as $5,000 a year for schools with 1,000 athletes.

That King-Devick test, developed in 1976, by Alan King and Steven Devick, provides sports teams with score sheets, physical tests, stopwatches and the iPad app.

Concussions have become the hot-button issue in a number of sports in recent years, but particularly football, because of blunt force. Many professional players have experienced long-term brain problems, leading to a diminished quality of life and, in the case of former Chargers great Junior Seau, suicide. The NFL recently has settled a lawsuit, for as much of a $1 billion, brought on by former players.

Just this week, 49ers linebacker Chris Borland, one of the top rookies in the game this past season, stunned the football world when he announced his retirement, citing a serious concern about concussions. Just 24, he's forfeiting millions of dollars.

The MHSAA, meanwhile, is starting with football, but has its eyes on all other sports, too.

"Most (schools) do have a detection system, but they are depending on just what they're observing in the pupils of the eyes and the students answering questions," said Roberts of the MHSAA. "If there's an expert, medical personnel, asking those questions, that's pretty reliable, but we don't have that everywhere."

This is the second significant player-safety improvement for the MHSAA in recent weeks. In February, the association announced starting in fall 2015, all high-school varsity coaches must be certified in CPR.