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Kansas coaches, officials react to $11.5 million jury award to brain-damaged high school football player

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, April 15, 2013, at 9:46 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, April 16, 2013, at 9:50 a.m.

Increasing awareness of football players sustaining concussions has mostly centered on health concerns.

Liability lawsuits on the issue largely have come from current and former NFL players.

But a ruling by a Colorado jury takes the financial piece to a new level for high schools. The jury awarded $11.5 million to the family of Rhett Ridolfi, a football player who has severe brain damage and partial paralysis as the result of a concussion he sustained in a Trinidad High School practice in 2008.

The size of the settlement may raise some eyebrows, but coaches and those charged with overseeing the sport for Kansas high schools say they are confident numerous precautions are in place to protect the players.

“I feel very comfortable that we do everything we can to make it as safe as possible,” said J. Means, athletic director for Wichita’s public schools. “But it is a violent game.”

In the Colorado suit, helmet maker Riddell was found negligent in failing to warn players about concussion dangers.

The lawsuit was originally brought against Riddell and several high school administrators and football coaches in Las Animas County, about 200 miles south of Denver near the New Mexico line. The jury assessed 27 percent of the fault for Ridolfi’s injury to Riddell, making the company responsible for paying $3.1 million of the damages.

Three people reached confidential settlements before Saturday’s verdict, but two coaches were still defendants at the trial. Ridolfi’s lawyer, Frank Azar, said Sunday that he’ll ask a judge to find Riddell responsible for paying all $11.5 million in damages.

Riddell is the nation’s largest maker of football helmets and accounts for about 99 percent of those used by the seven schools in Wichita’s City League, Means said. Riddell is also the predominant brand used across the state.

State law

Education – along with proper football techniques – is one of the biggest deterrents to concussions and one of the keys to athletes being treated properly if one does occur, coaches and athletic officials said.

Kansas and Colorado are among 33 states that had enacted youth sports concussion-related laws as of 2011, according to SafeKids USA, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that tracks safety issues for children.

Kansas’ law requires a detailed process of examining a high school athlete suspected of having a concussion. That athlete must have written permission from a health care provider – not a coach – before returning to participate in practices or games.

That goes for any sport, not just football.

The Kansas State High School Activity Association requires athletes in all sports and parents to sign a release form that acknowledges awareness of the risk of a head injury and concussion.

That form contains symptoms of a concussion that go far beyond just being knocked out. Ninety percent of concussions occur without a loss of consciousness, according to the Kansas Sports Concussion Partnership, a project sponsored by the Kansas Medical Society about the time the state adopted its concussion law in 2011.

At one time, a high school football player who had been “dinged” in the head would be sent back into the game as soon as he had shaken out the cobwebs.

No more.

“We always try to err on the side of caution,” Bishop Carroll High School coach Alan Schuckman said. “If we anticipate a concussion, we send them to the trainer.”

All large schools, including those in the City League, have a certified trainer attending all games and practices. Mark Lentz, who oversees football for the state activity association, said many smaller schools also have trainers.

“Thank God for trainers,” said West High School coach Weston Schartz, who has been coaching football for 29 years. “Coaches used to have to be the ones to determine whether it was a concussion, and we weren’t trained. Now, it’s totally out of our hands.”

Schuckman estimated he has 10 to 12 players get a concussion each season, out of 160 players.

Even after being checked out by a doctor and receiving a signed release, a player isn’t allowed to jump right back into full practice. Means said progressive steps are taken – aerobic work the first day, maybe drills without pads the next – before the player resumes full practices and plays in games.

“If at any time they have recurring symptoms,” Means said, “they go back and start over again with the doctor.”

Proper techniques

Football helmets must be checked for defects at least every other year. And no helmet may be used longer than 10 years, Means said.

The age of a helmet is tracked by its manufacturing date stamped inside. A reconditioning sticker is attached to keep track of that process, Means said.

“Obviously there’s no concussion-proof helmet out there,” Lentz said. “Unfortunately, some people believe there is.”

Proper helmet fitting is an important part of preventing head injuries. So too are proper tackling techniques, coaches said.

“The thing I don’t understand is the helmets are supposed to be better,” Schartz said, “but we’re having more concussions. Now, they’re going to say it’s because kids are bigger, stronger and faster. I don’t believe that. Kids hit the same now as they did in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.

“I had a few headaches when I played, but we were taught to tackle with our shoulder.”

Too often those coaching younger players allow them to lead with their heads when tackling, coaches and athletic officials said.

“Once bad habits are taught and learned,” Lentz said, “they’re hard to break.”

Tackling with the head is called spearing and is illegal.

“But (referees) don’t call it anymore,” Schartz said.

He’s also concerned that players deny they’re hurt so they can stay in a game or keep practicing.

“What I’ve found is kids are starting to lie,” Schartz said. “They’re saying, ‘On a scale of one to 10, my headache is a one,’ when it’s probably a seven or eight. They know if they say it’s that bad, they’re done for the next game.

“So it’s a two-edged sword.”

One solution is having players keep track of each other.

Schuckman recalled one of his players driving home from practice a few years ago and not remembering how he got there. He had received a concussion in practice, although it wasn’t his first.

The player had sustained one when he was younger while wakeboarding, but the coaches didn’t know about it.

“Ever since then we talk to players about if they see someone acting goofy – goofier than normal – let us know,” Schuckman said. “A couple times a year, I’ll have someone say, ‘Coach, you need to check out so and so.’ ”

If the Colorado settlement further increases the concerns about concussions, Means is fine with it.

“I don’t see the heightened awareness as a negative,” he said. “When I think back to some of the things that took place, it scares me. But we didn’t know any better.

“We’re better off now because we know better.”

Contributing: Associated Press

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com.

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