Air Force men's basketball’s surprising problem with concussions this season has to be attributable, at least in part, to bad luck. The Falcons have had six players suffer concussions. The program has never seen concussion numbers that high.
Although poor fortune is a reason, concussions aren’t just for football. Basketball has seen its players get bigger and faster, just like football, and head injuries have increased. In a National Athletic Trainers’ Association study from 1988-2004, there was a 65 percent increase in head injuries suffered during NCAA games from the first three years of the study to the last three years.
With more awareness of concussions in all levels, the numbers might increase again for the next study.
“I think it’s an issue for everybody,” Air Force men’s basketball trainer Ernie Sedelmyer said.
The Falcons have had four players (guard Avery Merriex, center Sammy Schafer, forward Tom Fow and forward Mike McLain, who has had two) suffer concussions during this season, and two undisclosed players suffered concussions in the preseason. Schafer’s case shows that basketball concussions can be just as scary and debilitating as in football.
Schafer suffered a concussion in practice in November, and after a few days of conditioning he felt nauseous with headaches. Almost two months later Schafer was still having problems, though a change in medication brought about some positive change.
“This sounds crazy, but he had a little life to him, some color,” Air Force coach Jeff Reynolds said after a Jan. 13 game. “He’s been so pale. I’m hoping the medicine they put him on will bring him around.”
High schools have been affected as well. The Newark Star-Ledger chronicled the struggles of girls’ basketball player Niki Popyer, who had to give up basketball after suffering 11 concussions, seven of which came while playing.
J’on St. Clair, boys’ basketball coach at Rampart High School, said guard Reuben Riggs-Russell suffered a concussion earlier this season and missed about a week. The school takes concussions seriously – St. Clair said when the trainer meets with players before the season, concussions are a topic of discussion.
“Basketball is a physical game, and there’s elbows to the head and screens, they happen quite often,” St. Clair said. “It’s just how often the kid tells the coach.”
One theory is there aren’t more concussions, but an increased awareness in football has trickled down to all sports and training staffs are on the lookout. That’s important with all teams, but Air Force has especially compelling reasons to be vigilant. Cadets who have suffered a concussion must go through rigorous tests before they are cleared to fly a plane. With potential long-term effects for life after athletics, Air Force takes concussions seriously. For example, a basketball player can’t be considered for return to contact drills until 8-10 days after concussion symptoms subside.
“It’s one of our biggest concerns,” Sedelmyer said. “If someone ends up with a sore ankle the rest of their lives, that’s not the same as having memory-loss issues the rest of their lives.”
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Concussions are much more prevalent in football than basketball – almost seven-and-a-half times more concussions per 1,000 exposures in practice or games, according to the National Athletic Trainers’ Association – but concussions are an increasing issue in basketball.
National estimates on injuries by high-school sport, 2005-06 school year
Girls’ soccer, 29,167
Boys’ soccer, 20,929
Girls’ basketball 12,923
Boys’ basketball 3,823
Most common in-game basketball injuries (with percentage of total reported injuries):
1. Ankle sprain, 26.2 percent
2. Knee derangement, 7.4
3. Upper leg contusion, 3.9
4. Concussion, 3.6
National estimates on activity associated with concussion injury, high school boys’ basketball 2005-06:
- Rebounding, 30.5 percent
- Chasing loose ball, 26
- Defending, 13.4
- Shooting, 12.9
- Ball handling/dribbling 10.4
- Receiving pass, 6.8
Source: National Athletic Trainers’ Association