ILLINOIS — Every day, state and school officials across the country continue to provide the latest guidelines for learning and extracurriculars — including sports — they believe will keep students and staff safe during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Despite several school districts and parents across the state opting for remote learning, and the Illinois High School Association’s decision to postpone the fall football season to spring 2021, there are those who believe team sports to be a vital part of their child’s social and emotional well-being.
There has never been a more important time for team sports — specifically football — during this downtime, they say. Friday is National Concussion Awareness Day, and Patch recently spoke with several key players involved in the mission keep our youth involved — and safe — on the field.
Lisa Ertz, a mother of four sons, says making football safer makes it more enjoyable for all. As the mother of Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz, who is married to Chicago Red Stars defender and U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team member Julie Ertz, Lisa sees the highs and lows that team sports bring to those who participate. Ertz also has three other sons, including one who had to give up his college football career due to several concussions in high school, she told Patch.
Ertz’s years of experience handling the risks and rewards of football, including “extraordinary, positive messages” her sons have learned as being part of a team, led her to her role as an advocate, spokesperson and coalition member for VICIS, a company created in 2013 in Seattle Washington to develop an improved football helmet. Ertz then became president of the VICIS Foundation, a nonprofit focused on improving safety in youth sports while investing in sports programs for “high-quality protective equipment and safety training,” specifically in struggling communities.
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With this experience and former role, she now holds a leadership position with Defend Your Head (DYH). As the Director of the Safety Alliance for DYH, a company whose mission is “to reduce head trauma for all contact sports, military and industrial applications utilizing our protective helmet cover (ProTech) with proprietary soft shell technology,” Ertz and DYH are continuously working to keep children safe once sports start up again, specifically football.
While the game is on pause in Illinois and several states across the country, DYH is working to make the ProTech cover the most premier piece of equipment when the game returns.
According to DYH, several leagues and thousands of youth players are part of their Safety Alliance, including a group of athletes in Oak Park. During their 2017 season, the Oak Park Huskies of The Chicagoland Youth Football League, reported zero concussions while wearing the ProTech technology.
“ProTech leverages minute movement technology, which means that upon impact, the cover moves slightly over the helmet beneath it, deflecting harmful impacts away from the head,” the DYH website states.
Testing on the ProTech cover proved to reduce head injury due to blunt force trauma, according to DYH. Testing included head injury criteria, which measures the potential for head injury and was developed for the automobile industry.
According to DYH, the HIC standard for helmets is 250, and most helmets range well above 280, while many older helmets are in the 600 to 1000 range. In this case, a lower score is better.
“When the ProTech cover is placed on a helmet, the HIC ranges in the 230 to 250 range + or – 10,” according to the company.
This cuts down the force at which an athlete gets hit.
To further validate the ProTech technology, it was used in a recent study at Penn State University. In July, the university published a dissertation titled “Susceptibility versus Resiliency to Concussive Injury and Head Acceleration Events in Athletics” by Dr. Alexa Walter. This independent study validated the ProTech technology, supporting the company's claims that their device helps protect youth football players, particularly against subconcussive blows.
“Sports-related concussion and repetitive exposure to impacts have become areas of growing public concern, especially given their potential link to long-term neurodegenerative damage,” Walter wrote. “The goal of this dissertation was to examine, using multiple modalities, why some individuals may be more susceptible and some more resilient to brain changes after sports-related concussion or to repetitive exposure of head acceleration events,” Walter wrote.
This multi year independent research study — the only one of its kind — using helmet accelerometers and the ProTech devices was coordinated by Tim Bream, former long-time Head Athletic Trainer for the Chicago Bears and the Head Athletic Trainer for Penn State Football at the time. (Full disclosure: Tim Bream is related to the author, but had no editorial rights to the story). The raw data gathered showed the ProTech cover significantly reduced the total amount of subconcussive blows, as well as the intensity of the hits to the offensive and defensive lineman involved in the study.
"When I saw the presentation regarding the Penn State research this past spring, I realized how important utilizing the ProTech was as a preventative tool to safeguard the health and well being of football players of all ages,” Ertz said.
While youth sports continue to be put on pause in certain parts of the country due to the coronavirus, Defend Your Head is working tirelessly to make the ProTech the most premier piece of equipment when football returns.
Earlier this summer, Patch asked readers whether they’d allow their children to return to football or other sports amid the coronavirus pandemic.
(These responses were posted before the IESA and IHSA announced their latest updates regarding fall 2020 sports).
Yorkville Patch neighbor Dennis Hood responded, stating, “Absolutely 100%. I have been waiting for football to start. If we have an opportunity to play in other states or just scrimmage against other local teams for fun. I just want our kids to get out and enjoy life.”
Palatine Patch neighbor Roy Trost-Rekich offered similar sentiments at the time, stating “Yes, we are going to camps (SIC), we can't live in fear. We will mask up and social distance to be safe though. Prayer as well!!!”
On the other end, Yorkville Patch neighbor Megan Johnson said their family chose not to play baseball this summer, and most likely will not play basketball this winter.
Ted Schwartz, Manhattan Patch reader, is in favor of kids returning to the field, citing information regarding kids under 17 from health officials in California in his response to Patch. (As of Sept. 15, there have been six confirmed deaths from the coronavirus for those under 20 years of age in Illinois).
Barbara Cosgriff, a strategic consultant for Total Spectrum/BWC Consulting and Coaching, and board member for the California Youth Football Alliance (CA YFA), met Ertz through the VICIS Foundation, where she served as the vice president of external relations/government affairs at VICIS.
“One part of my job was to help really make people aware of what Lisa was doing with the foundation,” Cosgriff told Patch.
Like Ertz, football and the importance of opportunities for young community members is near and dear to Cosgriff’s heart.
Cosgriff’s father played football through college, attending the University of Washington on a scholarship. She said it provided him with an education and opportunities he might not have had otherwise. The Jim Wiley Community Center in Kings County is named after Cosgriff's father, a former executive director of the Kings County housing authority.
Ertz and Cosgriff also came together when Ertz testified on behalf of the Youth Football Alliance's Youth Football Act, which passed in California and goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2021.
“The bill, on and after January 1, 2021, would require a youth tackle football league to establish youth tackle football participant divisions that are organized by relative age or weight or by both age and weight, and to retain information for the tracking of youth sports injuries, as specified,” the California Legislature Information website states.
“The bill would declare that nothing in its provisions would prohibit any youth sports organization or youth tackle football league from adopting and enforcing rules providing a higher level of safety than the requirements of this bill.”
The Youth Football Alliance brought together everyone who had concerns about football safety, and they worked constructively to solve the problem, resulting in the Youth Football Act, according to Cosgriff.
She said the legislation, authored by state assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove), was the first real legislation in the country to allow community members a constructive approach to embedding safety processes in youth and high school football. According to Cosgriff, Cooper, a former Sacramento County Sheriff's deputy, said he saw the difference keeping kids involved in sports and the boys and girls club made in the community.
>> More: cayfa.org/ab-1-info-sheet
Cosgriff believes that collaboration was the key to making change in California.
“We're gonna need to find those efforts in other states because they’ve stopped,” Cosgriff said.
In 2003, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Injury Center developed the public health response to concussion, through the HEADS UP campaign. Through this campaign, concussion educational materials became available at no cost “for youth sports coaches, school coaches, parents, athletes, and school and health care professionals.”
The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) then teamed up with CDC's HEADS UP to “educate coaches, officials, parents and students on the importance of proper concussion recognition and management in high school sports,” according to the Illinois Department of Public Health website.
The HEADS UP brochures meet the requirement of Public Act 100-0747 in Illinois.
According to the IDPH, each state's requirements for concussion management are included as part of the course.
In 2019, an amendment to the Illinois Youth Sports Concussion Act (Public Act 099-0245) was implemented.
“Public Act 099-0245 focuses primarily on concussion management at the middle school/junior high school and high school levels,” the IDPH stated on its website.“The legislation amends the School Code and is a requirement for all schools.”
The IHSA views proper concussion management as a shared responsibility of those involved with athletic participation (schools coaches, athletes, parents). The IESA also has its own specific guidelines.
Another piece of legislation, The Dave Duerson Act to Prevent CTE, was unveiled in 2018. The bill was named after former Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson, who took his life in 2011 and was later diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The bill was created to prevent children under age 12 from playing organized tackle football in Illinois and passed through committee in March 2018. However, in January 2019, the House adjourned without assigning a day for a further meeting or hearing on the bill.
Patch reached out to supporters of the bill and is awaiting a response.
While many parts of our daily lives are at a standstill due to the coronavirus, Ertz, Cosgriff and many others are working tirelessly to make sure football and after school programs are safer and more accessible once we return to normalcy.
Ertz believes that taking sports away from kids leads to bigger issues, such as crime and the ongoing opioid crisis, and she emphasized that for some kids, not being part of a team isn’t an option.
Being on a sports team, she added, is vital to keeping them involved in school, keeping them busy, and out of trouble.
Ertz recently added an advisor and board member of a mission called Beyond the Field to her extensive — and dedicated — community-centered schedule.
Ertz told Patch the loss of the game and the rise of gun violence on the streets is its own pandemic happening among inner-city kids every day. She added that other factors pointing to a need for football and extracurriculars include trauma in kids’ homes, drugs, alcohol, violence, food insecurity, homelessness and more.
“It is my opinion that young men need a positive focus from 3:00-6:00 every day and if we do our part to advocate for the safest equipment — then all kids with a dream to play, will be able to,” Ertz said in a statement on the DYH website.
The U.S. Department of Justice reported that in 2018 that law enforcement agencies in the U.S. made an estimated 728,280 arrests of people under age 18. This is 60 percent less than the number of arrests in 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice found.
But there is much more to be done, and athletes and community leaders across the U.S. are working tirelessly to create safer communities and more opportunities for our youth.
Ertz said she was once told that the best way to ensure the safety of the city of Philadelphia going forward is more investment in youth sports.
“The void that removing football is causing in Philadelphia is creating issues far worse than any of the previous concerns about safety,” Ertz said. “I can’t help but think that we can/should use this time away to make an even stronger statement about the game, its benefits (particularly in the highest risk, underserved communities), and its place for so many kids.”
Ertz has also been supporting community-based organizations through the Ertz Family Foundation, launched in 2018 by Ertz's son, Zach, and his wife, Julie.
The Ertz Family Foundation focuses on three programs and initiatives: The City of Love Fund, Catches for the Community, and Mission of Hope Scholarship Fund.
The Ertz Family Foundation website states, “The City of Love Fund’s objective is to help support the financial needs that smaller community-based organizations face. The focus is to first and foremost provide grant support to charities, programs and initiatives that serve the most vulnerable residents living in several communities."
Similar actions are being taken in Chicago, where athletes are working to create change and opportunity for local neighborhoods and youth residents. In June, 11 players from the Chicago Bears, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Chicago Blackhawks and Chicago Bulls — all with local connections — came together at the By The Hand Kids Club in the Austin neighborhood in Chicago, where they met with 30 kids and several city police officers.
During that time together, the 30 teenagers from three local organizations — By The Hands Kids Club, Westside Health Authority and BUILD — spoke of their upbringing in Chicago's inner city and the challenges they faced, 670 The Score reported, discussing how the teens were coping with the death of George Floyd and sharing their perspective with the police officers and athletes.
According to the report, the athletes received a message from congressman Davis, “an avid fan of Chicago's team,” who was moved by the group’s efforts.
The meeting was the beginning of a collaboration between “some of Chicago's most influential athletes” as they work toward building a better city, including plans for rebuilding the neighborhood, the radio station reported.
According to the Chicago Police Department, juveniles holding leadership positions in gangs and feeling unsafe in their neighborhoods are two of the main reasons for increased gun possession and violence in the city.
The National Youth Sports Strategy, released in 2019 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, found that increasing youth sports participation includes two components: “Getting youth to start playing and helping them to continue playing,” adding that “Sports participation also provides youth with the opportunity to develop social and interpersonal skills, such as teamwork, leadership, and relationship building, and enables youth to benefit from the communal aspect of team sports.”
The publication also noted that “Research shows that organized sport participation can reduce youth violence and crime, either by distracting from these activities or by exposing youth to opportunities for personal growth.”
“We owe it to parents and coaches and school districts to know that this piece of equipment exists,” Cosgriff told Patch. “It's not a secret we're allowed to keep to ourselves.”
“The lessons kids learn playing athletics are critical,” Cosgriff added. “They are the same critical lessons you need to function in society. You go out there and compete fairly, and then when the game is over (and there's a winner and a loser) you shake hands and walk off the field. And sometimes you put your arm around the guy's shoulder. We need to be able to do that. Especially now; we need to be able to have a difference of opinion — or compete — and then put our arms around the shoulder and leave with mutual respect.”
Patch will update this piece as the discussion on youth football safety continues in Illinois and across the country.