We are more aware than ever of the dangers that playing football has towards proper cognitive functioning. How can you handle this as a head coach?

We all know well that Rudy Carlton has football circulating through his veins. It’s his way of building relationships. His way of encouraging strong, resilient men. His way of showcasing that competitive fire in him. The sport has been a part of his life since he was eight years old, playing with his brother in their hometown’s pee-wee league.

Playing the game just seemed destined to happen for Carlton, with his family holding the same passion for athletics that he encompasses today. So when a young Rudy stepped on the field for the first time, it was a feeling of fulfillment. It was not, however, a feeling of fear. 

Perhaps it should have been.

“I do think there is a certain age where it is appropriate to play football, but it has grown very hard to gauge,” Carlton said. “Playing at eight compared to first stepping on the field in high school is so different, and there are advantages and disadvantages to both. If you first play in high school, you won’t know the fundamentals as well as other players, which is dangerous. Yet when you are too young, injuries become a severe problem.”

Studies on head-related injuries through contact sports have been prevalent among football dialogue for several years. Whether it be the increased intensity of concussion protocol or the dissection of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), football has become a sport that needs to answer for their dangerous trends of competition.

This responsibility falls within all placements of organized football. From the collegiate and professional levels, higher-ups have developed new rules to try and minimize head injuries, along with efforts to enhance football equipment to become more equipped for intense contact. Yet these are the efforts taken among players with far developed brains. Imagine this sort of concern for the youth, a demographic with an oftentimes embryonic brain and a head-neck proportion that leads to far less protection when absorbing force from an impact.

As the years go by, the question of risk over reward becomes more challenging when considering football. However, it continues to be played by hundreds of thousands of Americans, regardless of age. It’s also still viewed as the country’s most popular sport, with the race not particularly close.

Coaches, then, are being asked to consider these types of dangers and adapt to them. Winning football games is important, and that is ultimately the deciding factor between why coaches are either brought in or kicked out the door. Yet the morality of a coach should always be to place player safety above everything else.

“The education of coaches is what is most important. And just the way I’ve learned how to hit and block as a player is completely different from what we teach today. The game has become safer to play. And frankly, I just think coaches back in the day didn’t know better. They didn’t know the safest ways to play the game because they didn’t have the advanced data we see today,” Carlton noted.

When observing how coaches adapt to injuries, their job is to stay out of the way. With the professionals in place who handle injuries such as these, coaches are in constant communication with them to be aware of the condition of their players. From there they need to adjust their gameplans accordingly. However, coaches have no impact in terms of clearing players to return – that is all on the medical staff.

“You don’t handle it as a coach, and that’s the way it should be,” Carlton said. “Decisions on the health of players will always be done by the medical staff. It is never a decision that a coach should, or could make. At the end of the day, they are just way smarter than us.” 

Azusa Pacific’s medical staff was praised by Carlton, particularly when considering their thorough concussion protocol. That process is being managed by the university’s most established healthcare administrators, whether that be April Hoy, who is the current assistant athletic director, or Benjamin Fuller, who is the head athletic trainer. That protocol makes sure that if a player is potentially at risk of having a concussion, they are asked to pass a variety of measures to be cleared. That seven-day progression must be completed or the player is ineligible to step foot on the field.

“We were involved in a national study, and we were one of the primer universities in the country, regardless of division or level, that was showcased in that study. And from that study several programs adopted a lot of our concussion protocol because, as a school, we were so ahead of our time in terms of that research,” Carlton said. “They continue to do just an amazing job.”

Nevertheless, Carlton understands that he is coaching a game of brutality. And while the fundamental principle of the sport may be the strongest motivator in terms of building the character of a football player, it is also the most dangerous. Knowing this truth, it becomes difficult to attempt and defend the game’s practicality.

Credit is being deserved for several parties, however. In nearly every facet of football, people are trying to make it less damaging. Progress has been made all across the board, whether it be the improved coaching strategies when learning how to tackle or the need to make certain aspects of the game, particularly on special teams, safer.

The most riveting process has been the implementation of improved technology for helmets. Nearly every collegiate program throughout the country incorporates impact-absorbing materials, such as memory foam, in helmets which are fitted among individual players through a 3D scan of the players’ heads. Certainly, these helmets are not fully capable of preventing concussions, but they have proven to mitigate a multitude of factors. And, the good news is there is only room for improvement when looking at this technology.

One of the many components that Carlton mentioned towards player safety was the potential usage of sensors inside helmets that read the level of force behind an impact and decide if stepping off the field to be evaluated for a concussion is needed.

“Data management is important. And when you look at the NFL, they are already incorporating those advanced measures into their helmets,” he said. “Those sensors are made to generate data that coaches or any other form of management simply can’t refute. And it is the perfect step to take when considering player safety in the future of our sport.”

No, football will never be a safe sport. In fact, essentially any contact sport is incapable of earning such a title. The question then becomes, is playing the game and manifesting that competitive fire worth potential injury? To Carlton and his team, that answer is clear. And as long as the program continues to place safety above that desire for victory, they will be playing the game the right way.

“Student-athlete safety is paramount for us. That goes for every facet, including concussions and any other injury. If you keep that the priority of your program, then you’ll always be in a good spot,” he said.