The debate over player safety and the impact of playing sports on an athlete’s body has raged on the professional level for years.
News of a major league pitcher needing elbow reconstruction surgery or an NFL star getting a concussion are often top stories on ESPN and professional sports leagues have made player safety one of, if not the, highest priorities.
On the youth and high school level in New York City, area leagues have followed suit in making the health of young athletes during sporting events a paramount objective.
For those parents who nervously watch their child’s football or soccer practice, advances in sports medicine have made today arguably the safest time in recent memory to be an athlete, according to Dr. Warren Young, associate chief of the division of primary care sports medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center.
“It definitely is,” Young said. “There are a lot of strides being made right now in terms of preventative practices [to avoid injuries].”
Young, who specializes in orthopedic surgery and is an expert in pediatric sports medicine, concussions and tendon injuries, has worked at NYU Langone for three years.
He also serves as a physician with Long Island University-Brooklyn, the Public School Athletic League and the US Open.
Young’s colleague, Dr. Dennis Cardone, an orthopedic surgery specialist, was named the PSAL’s first-ever chief medical officer earlier this month.
In recent years, the PSAL has notably instituted such player safety standards as mandating on-site defibrillators at every school-sponsored athletic event, and Cardone, who was unavailable for comment due to work commitments, told WNYC earlier this month that concussion education, the most notable player safety topic in the sports world as of late, will be a focal point of his tenure.
“A big part of what we’re doing right now is concussion education,” Cardone said, “[such as] the recognition of a concussion and appropriate treatment of the potentially concussed athlete.”
The PSAL’s concussion policy is a strict one. Prior to the start of the school year, every athletic director and coach is trained in administering concussion tests and recognizing such acute brain injuries.
During the season, an active record of head injuries must be kept by each school’s athletic director. If a player is suspected of having a concussion, his or her coach must escort the athlete off the field and paperwork to record the exact details of the injury must be filled out immediately.
The child may not return to the playing field until at least 24 hours has passed since the injury and a licensed physician gives the athlete written medical clearance.
When it comes to football, arguably the most dangerous sport a youngster can play, Young said preventative measures such as limiting the amount of full contact practices a team can have reduce the number of concussions, but educating parents and children about the dangers of downplaying them is just as key in terms of preventing future head injuries.
“The education part started at the coaching level and the athletic trainers have taken note as well, but getting athletes and parents involved is the next level,” he said. “They need to make sure the child is fully recovered before they can play again.”
The Catholic High School Athletic Association, the city’s other major high school sports league, has similar strict safety guidelines for coaches and officials.
As with the PSAL, an active record of injuries must be kept by school officials, and any player requiring a doctor’s visit for an injury must receive written permission from that doctor in order to return to practice or game action.
If an athlete is out of action for more than one week due to injury or illness, the CHSAA requires that the player participate in up to three team practices without any flare-ups of the injury or illness before they can return to the playing field.
When it comes to baseball, the city banned both leagues from using metal bats during games, as balls leave metal bats at a higher velocity than balls struck with wooden bats.
Strict pitch count limits were also put in place in the PSAL in 2011 to avoid injury to the growing arms of high school hurlers.
In terms of single game limits, pitchers cannot exceed a pitch count of 105.
Players are able to pitch the next day if they throw 25 or fewer pitches; and a player has to rest a day if he throws 26 to 53 pitches, two days if he throws 50 to 70 pitches, three days if he throws 70 to 90 pitches and four days for a total higher than 90.
Young said a pitch count limit is something he would like to see the CHSAA adopt, as well as a limit on how many leagues a child can play in to reduce stress on the arm.
“The main thing I would love for the city to do would be to get athletic trainers for all schools,” he said. “They’re a great front line for assessing injuries.”
Young also notes that mandating trainers may help end the practice of aggressive coaches rushing injured players back in order to improve the team’s chance at winning.