Parents of Loudoun Valley High School football players call for sensors
Amid a national debate about concussions and the safety of playing football, a local parents group is focusing its efforts on ensuring the safety of student-athletes beyond the football field to other sports, focusing in on policy decisions by Loudoun County School District.
School officials stopped football practice at Loudoun Valley last week when 24 players began drills with impact sensors on their helmets. Players were told they would not be able to continue practice with the sensors still attached.
Rather than provoke a confrontation with coaches or administrators, parents went onto the practice field and stripped the sensors off the helmets.
The sensors, which measure impact on the head, were purchased by parents from Brain Sentry, a Bethesda company that has partnered with Inova
Neuroscience Research. The company wants to put sensors on all Loudoun football and lacrosse helmets to identify the risks athletes face and to study data.
The sensors do not prevent or identify concussions or head trauma but serve as monitors that measure collision force and frequency.
The night before last week's practice, Loudoun Valley High School football players received an email from the school informing them that installation of the sensors would not be permitted.
Parents had enough sensors to outfit the whole team, but only 24 wore the sensors before practice was stopped.
“Helmets with sensors will not be permitted for use during practice or game situations,” the letter stated.
The decision was not lightly made, according to Wayde Byard, LCPS public information officer.
“It's not something that came up in the last couple of weeks,” he said. “It's an ongoing discussion that's been going on for quite some time...Quite a bit of research has been done on our part.”
Concerns over the effectiveness and accuracy of the sensors, the risk of targeted excessive blows by rival players to set off the devices, and invalidation of the helmet certification were among the reasons listed for the decision.
One of the biggest reservations was the lack of any national sanctioning of the device or of any protocols for its use.
“Without any sanctioning...we didn't feel this was a risk we wanted to take,” said Byard.
According to Dee Howard, one of the parents who spearheaded the conversation with Brain Sentry, she and other parents like the idea of the sensors acting as another pair of eyes on the field. If the sensor's light turns red, it indicates a strong collision.
Howard said the red light can help Loudoun Valley athletic trainers spot players who might have experienced a blow hard enough to cause a concussion.
The extra warning allows them to spot these potentials and carry out the nationally-approved concussion protocols the school already has in place.
“We understand, we're not naïve, that this doesn't identify a concussion,” she said. “All it is is an alert to a possible injury to the head. That's all we're asking for in our asking them to let us use the device. It doesn't change their protocol.”
Parents sign waivers which absolve the school of responsibility should one of the athletes receive an injury. They spend money on safety gear, including pads, helmet, and mouth guards.
If parents already sign waivers stating their responsibility for their child's safety, according to Howard they should be allowed to buy one extra piece of safety equipment.
“My son will be a junior next month,” she said. “I have two seasons of him in football, and I'd really like to use what's available to protect his brain. You'd think the school system would be interested...in using a safety protocol...that will only enhance (their pre-existing protocol).”
Jim Boyle, spokesman for Brain Sentry, said the company knew that it would be harder to convince high schools to allow the sensors on their players than other teams they've outfitted with the sensors.
“When it gets to level such as high school football, it's only natural that there would be processes in place that we need to fit into in order to roll out the sensors in a way that's most helpful to the most number of players,” he said.
Even so, he was surprised that a school in the fast-growing county wouldn't want to be at the forefront of something that Boyle and Charles Mann, former Redskin and chairman of Brain Sentry, believe will be standard issue on helmets in the not-so-distant future.
“It's kind of interesting that a place like Loudoun, which has sort of boomed because of the tech revolution, would not want to be a part of the early stage roll-out of the sensors,” Boyle said. “They wouldn't be the first (schools) to use them, but they would be among the first of the early adopters.”
Howard said she and other parents plan to raise the issue at upcoming school board meetings in an effort to get the Superintendent to revisit the issue.
Safety is cited as the number one concern by all parties involved in the dispute. Whether sensors will rest on the helmets of Loudoun football and lacrosse players in the near future is unclear.
“It appears it's going to be an uphill battle to roll-out the sensors at Loudoun Valley High School, let alone the whole county,” Boyle said.