Concussions still an ‘elephant in the room’

Randy Palmer/Times-Herald

Former Roughrider pushing for changes to concussion policy in province


For all the safety measures, research and increased awareness in the last decade, there is still one thing that minor sports associations have a hard time talking about.

“Talk about the elephant in the room,” said former Roughrider and current activist for concussion prevention and awareness Ventson Donelson. “The game itself is a lot safer than it’s ever been, so why wouldn’t we talk about that extra layer of safety to ensure our kids are okay when they return to play, instead of rolling the dice?”

Donelson is on a crusade to get football players at all levels — but especially high school — baseline tested when it comes to cognition. In the event that they do then suffer a concussion, they then have something to compare their regular abilities to.

“Was at the (University of Regina) Rams camp, talking to parents, and was dumbfounded that no one has sent them anything about getting their kids baseline tests or about the concussion protocol. It’s just sad,” Donelson said. “Of all the parents I talked to, I’d say 80 per cent of them knew nothing about a baseline.”

The way the protocol works now is that when an athlete is taken off the field as a result of a concussion, they need to be cleared by a doctor and exhibit no symptoms before they can return. When they do, they start back gradually, with their physical skills slowly tested. Donelson said their brains should also undergo the same regimen.

Former head coach at Peacock Collegiate Blake Buettner agreed that the way concussions are dealt with has come a long way in the last 10 years, but that there is still room for improvement in several areas.

“The more that everybody is aware, that’s a good thing, not just your head coaches. There’s a lot going on at a football game and sometimes when you’re busy, you might not notice something someone else does,” he told the Times-Herald. “With concussions, just because somebody doesn’t take a knee down on the field, sometimes you don’t know if somebody has been hurt and just came off.”

The stories that rocked the NFL and NHL in recent years — leading even to a Hollywood feature starring Will Smith — have changed public perception of concussions as well as how coaches and players handle head injuries.

“Gone way beyond ‘how many fingers?’ and ‘what day is it?’ That knowledge base is a very positive thing,” Buettner said.

As far as baseline testing goes, the former coach of 29 years and parent to a football player himself said it was a good step, but one that can be challenging to take in a place like Moose Jaw.

“I think baseline testing is a good thing. Unfortunately, in the long run, everything comes down to dollars and time and facilities, but I think that’s a very positive thing,” he said. “Moose Jaw’s not as big and we don’t have the access, especially to the university facilities like Saskatoon and Regina do. It’s tougher, but there are local people that were willing to have a look at baseline testing and to make sure everybody is safe, which is a great thing.”

That access is something Donelson is also seeking to improve. While a basic test runs from about $75 to $110, he said, his campaign called Mind of a Champion, is raising funds to help athletes, who might find the cost of the test prohibitive, get into the exam room. So far, he has raised enough for 52 high school athletes, the first eight of which underwent the evaluation on Wednesday in Regina.

“The reaction was great. I spoke with one parent this morning, and he said he found it to be amazing. He didn’t know it was going to be that detailed, all the different things they take the kids through,” Donelson said. “He said it gave him a great deal of comfort, knowing that they tested all these things, so if his kid does get a concussion, they’ve got something tangible that they can work with. That made him feel a lot better as a parent.”

Donelson hasn’t yet taken his efforts to Moose Jaw, but said the goal is to get every player in the province involved. Though it may take some time to get to that level, Buettner said the push towards better understanding and practices is already there, starting at the professional level and eventually reaching minor leagues.

“People love contact sports and they love to watch it, but there’s that safety factor, and you’ve got to make sure you’re looking out for each other,” he said. “It starts with professional and it’s worked its way down to the grassroots.”