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High Price to Play: How to Make School Sports Safer

State of Confusion

The accident happened three years ago, but Alex Artino's memories are painfully vivid. "It was a night game, start of the second quarter," says Alex, then a 17-year-old running back for the Fairview High Knights, in Boulder, Colorado. "The ball was thrown behind me, so I turned, jumped, and got my hand on it. That's when a linebacker hit me -- right in the face with his helmet." Alex collapsed in a heap on the ground. "I felt like I was floating and that everything was in slow motion," he recalls. The team trainer concluded Alex had suffered a concussion and took him out of the game. "I sat on the bench feeling dazed," he says. "My head ached. The lights hurt my eyes, and I couldn't see clearly."

His symptoms were gone by morning, and after a week Alex's doctor said he could resume playing. His first game back Alex was barreling down the field when he and another player collided head to head. "For the next few months I wasn't myself," he says. "I had no emotions -- it was like I'd lost my personality. I couldn't concentrate, and my grades dropped from A's to C's." A neurologist diagnosed him with post-concussion syndrome, a cluster of physical, emotional, and cognitive disorders that can last weeks, months, or years after a jarring impact to the brain. After talking with his parents, Alex decided to hang up his cleats for good.

Concussion is one of the most serious threats to young athletes, especially high school football players, who account for 40,000 of the estimated 300,000 sports- and recreation-related brain injuries that occur each year. Baseball, basketball, and soccer players are also at high risk -- as are teen girls, who have a 68 percent higher rate of concussion in soccer and a 300 percent higher rate in basketball, according to a 2007 report in the Journal of Athletic Training. Even worse, concussions are drastically underreported. That's partly because many kids -- and parents -- still mistakenly believe the injury always involves loss of consciousness. And even when they know they've likely suffered a concussion, athletes often don't tell their coaches for fear of being benched.

It's a dangerous deception. People who sustain one concussion have a greater risk of suffering another with each new injury. Multiple concussions may increase the risk of developing Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and other conditions affecting brain function. Studies also show that incurring a concussion while still healing from a previous one can result in "second-impact syndrome," a rapid swelling of the brain that may result in respiratory failure and can be fatal.

Alex is lucky. He got straight A's his final semester at Fairview High School and is now doing well at the University of Colorado, where he plays the occasional game of touch football with his friends. "He's got his sparkle back," says his mom, Sharyl. "Quitting was hard for him, but he knows he made the right decision. The risk was just too great."