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A statewide nonprofit helps students, parents and coaches navigate the world of high school sports

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JAIME VALDEZ - Peter Weber, executive director of the Oregon School Activities Association (right), and assistant director Brad Garrett say it wasn't until a decade ago that sports officials started getting serious about concussions.When it comes to keeping high school athletes safe in Oregon, many parents and students may think of the folks on the front line: athletics directors, coaches and trainers. What they may not realize is that behind the scenes, a nonprofit group plays a big role.

The Oregon School Activities Association has a broad mandate, overseeing everything from the upcoming statewide track meets in Eugene to the state choir championships in Newberg. And for the past decade, it has been a driving force behind Oregon's efforts to reduce the risk of head injuries among high school athletes.

Earlier this year, OSAA Executive Director Peter Weber and Assistant Director Brad Garrett sat down with Lee van der Voo of InvestigateWest and John Schrag of Pamplin Media Group to talk about "Rattled," the two news organizations' collaborative investigation into Oregon high school concussions.

The following has been edited for clarity and brevity. A link to a podcast of the conversation and a longer excerpt can be found at www.portlandtribune.com.

Q: Talk a little bit, since you both have a history in high school sports, about at what point head injuries started to rise to the top of concerns.

Garrett: I think 2008 was really a watershed moment for a lot of coaches and athletic directors, not only in Oregon but around the country. We started to learn more, specifically about concussions in general. That is when education efforts really started to come to the forefront about recognizing signs, symptoms and behaviors related to a concussed athlete and what are the appropriate steps to take from that point.

Q: What's the simple rule about concussions and participation in Oregon?

Weber: If a student is recognized to have the signs and symptoms of a concussion, they're removed from a contest so they can be evaluated by an appropriate health care professional. If it's determined that they do have a concussion, they don't go back in that day. That's kind of a baseline.

Q: Your organization has created some protocols and some best practices when it comes to preventing, identifying and responding to high school concussions. What are some examples?

Garrett: Obviously the sport of football gets highlighted in these conversations. It is a contact sport. We know that concussion does occur there. We were the first state in the country to require that every single coach, paid or volunteer football coach, is Heads Up Football-certified. Heads Up certification (developed by the federal Centers for Disease Control) means that you've taken a series of courses, essentially proper tackling, blocking, equipment fitting, heat and hydration, and concussion. You gotta take those five courses.

Q: You've moved now from "should" to "must." So what is your leverage to say you can't go out and have full-contact football practices five days a week?

Garrett: Well, the OSAA has the ability to fine our member schools, levy sanctions and forfeitures. They don't like that, but we will.

Q: Something that we're noticing in talking to parents and school officials throughout the series is maybe a tipping point, from taking these incidents seriously to having a real fear about participation. Are you seeing that also?

Garrett: We are seeing declining participation numbers in some contact sports, for sure. That's not just in Oregon; that's around the country. Parents are taking the notion that their son or daughter could be involved in an incident where they could have a brain injury. As parents, your natural instinct is to say, 'That sounds like something I don't want my kid involved in.' So that's where you, as a parent, have to weigh the benefits versus the risk.

Q: We know why parents would want to avoid risk for their kids. Tell us what the pros are. What are the benefits of playing sports?

Weber: I think there's a tremendous number of benefits. Just from a personal standpoint, a lot of who I am today as a person and the role that I play in the organization is because of the experiences in my life growing up and participating in activities and athletics. There are many studies out there that show that students who participate in activities, no matter what the activity is, do better in school, have better attendance rates, are more likely to graduate. It provides them that opportunity to work with team members, with coaches, with people from other teams, the officials. How to face adversity. It teaches them resilience, grit, and those aren't always things that can be taught in a classroom

Garrett: Pete and I happen to have two sons that are right in the same grade level. My son, Mac, is an 11-year-old. Right now Mac is wrestling, and I picked him up from practice the other night and he asked me if it was really worth it. Mac has not won a wrestling match this year, he's 0 and 14. But you know, I'm watching my son not give up. Watching him grow as a person. It's really a great time in my life watching my young son understand that life isn't always fair. It's a hard lesson. He's questioned it several times, but I'm proud of the fact that he's working through that right now. And as I see that later in his life, that is going to benefit him greatly, and I don't know too many venues where you can get that situation, outside of athletics.

Q: But as you've noted, there also are risks.

Garrett: Our experience as the Garrett family is that 'Hey, as long as these organizations that are governing these activities and the coaches that are coaching it are as well-trained as possible to know and understand what actions to take, I'm more than comfortable in allowing my son to participate.'

Q: What's changed since 2008?

Garrett: One of the dynamics that's shifted over the last 10 years is parents who have become a lot more involved in programs. You know, it wasn't, 'Well the coach said this, and we shut the door on the parents.' Parents can educate themselves, they can question, they understand the protocols that should be in place. And that's been a welcomed thing. Parents need to be involved in those programs.

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