As ‘Concussion’ comes to theaters, Westlake trainer’s work takes center stage
By Rhiannon Potkey of the Ventura County Star
Posted: Dec. 23, 2015
Scott Blatt couldn't fully grasp the disparity until he witnessed it himself.
The Westlake High School athletic trainer was on the sideline of a passing league football game this year when a player from an opposing team took a hit to the head.
Blatt walked over to the player and his coach to offer his assistance. Blatt asked if he should contact someone in case the player suffered a concussion.
"They gave me a perplexed look. They didn't have anybody helping them at the school or any other doctor they saw," Blatt said. "It really opened my eyes because I assumed everyone in the county was doing what we were doing up here."
What Blatt has been doing is providing baseline concussion testing and treatment for athletes from Westlake, Thousand Oaks High and various youth football teams.
But self-funding the testing has become harder for Blatt in the past five years, and he wants more schools to have the same access to medical care.
In an attempt to improve concussion treatment across the county, Blatt founded a nonprofit. The Conejo Concussion Institute was formed six months ago to educate, provide awareness and undertake research regarding the effects of concussions in youth and high school sports.
Blatt's goal is to help pay the salary of athletic trainers for schools in need of assistance. He wants the athletic trainers to make weekly visits to practice and be on the sideline at football, soccer and lacrosse games.
"Every athlete in our county deserves to have the same level of medical care, but I understand that is hard for some schools with the cost involved," said Blatt, the head trainer at Westlake since 1995. "It's really going to take the business community to support it. We have a lot of major companies in our area like Amgen and Blue Cross that could really help, and it wouldn't be that much money to them."
Although head trauma has been a major topic in sports in the past few years, the issue will move into a broader spotlight this week with the Christmas Day release of "Concussion."
Starring Will Smith, the movie tells the story of forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, who helped discover chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and its link to the suicides of several former National Football League players.
Rather than frighten people, Dr. Christopher Giza hopes the movie can help generate more discussion about the topic.
Giza is a pediatric neurologist at UCLA and director of the Steve Tisch BrainSPORT program, which provides research-based treatment for sports concussions to athletes of all ages.
"I think it's important for people to realize that ... it's based on a true story and is a dramatization of actual events, not a documentary," Giza said. "I think events like these provide opportunity for more knowledge. I hope parents, athletes and coaches get more interested to reach out beyond the movies and the stars to their local and national experts on the topic and try to inform themselves to get better educated about the subject."
Ventura County has been at the forefront of some recent concussion research projects through sports:
● California Lutheran University is one of 21 colleges nationally participating in a comprehensive study of concussions and head-impact exposures funded by the National Collegiate Athletic Association and U.S. Department of Defense.
● The Westlake High football program was one of the first high school teams to use Riddell's InSite Impact Response system, which feature sensors in helmets to measure the impact of hits.
● Ventura-based Architected Materials Inc. was part of a team receiving a $500,000 grant last year to help reduce head injuries and concussions in football through improved helmet technology.
Giza is working on a study at UCLA to develop protocol for diagnosing and treating concussions in youth and high school athletes.
His team is developing a large database and wants to eventually include athletes in the Conejo Valley.
Giza met with Blatt and his staff at Body Logic Sports Therapy in Westlake Village to train them on the testing, which includes a medical history, symptom list, cognitive assessment, balance assessment, reaction time and visual tracking.
Giza wants to make the diagnosis of concussions more accurate and try to develop more individualized treatment plans.
"The most important thing to remember when taking care of concussions is that there is no single test for a concussion. There is no single protocol for returning to school or returning to play," Giza said. "Our goal is to find out how to provide the best level of care for any athlete, but particularly for youth athletes."
Although concussion research and funding has increased, Giza says very little is being done at the lower levels of sports.
"In the NFL we hear a lot about millions of dollars being spent, and in college we hear about the grant money and the NCAA funding research. But down in the high school and youth sports leagues, where there are many more athletes participating, there is no organized effort," Giza said. "There are individual sites doing research, but no group of investigators putting their brains and experience together for those players."
Providing data specifically for younger athletes is essential, according to Giza.
"Certainly, brain development and injuries are different in kids than adults. Kids aren't just little adults," he said. "They are very different, and their brain is connected different and they have different vulnerabilities to injuries. We want to determine what the best tools are for those different ages."
Blatt is hoping the Conejo Concussion Institute can help in the effort.
Nick Corso is already a believer in Blatt's vision. His two sons played football at Westlake and benefited from the baseline testing and concussion education provided by Blatt.
Corso has offered to hold a fundraiser through his accounting firm, Anton & Chia, to assist the Conejo Concussion Institute.
"I grew up playing the sport and I love the sport, but I love the kids even more, and I am in favor of doing anything and everything we can to protect them," said Corso, who also coaches freshman football at Oaks Christian School. "We live in a part of the country that is very fortunate because we can afford to attend some of the best schools and have access to some of the best resources. We need to make strides on this issue because the game of football is evolving quickly."
During his promotional tour for the movie, Will Smith said playing the role of Omalu has made him rethink his unabashed love for football.
Smith discussed his ambivalence about having allowed his son Trey to play at Oaks Christian School. The wide receiver graduated in 2011.
"I think the thing that really took it over the edge for me is when he (Omalu) explained the science and I realized that, as a parent, I wasn't aware — like, I had no idea," Smith told the Los Angeles Times. "While my son was playing football, there was never a conversation about the concussion issue. It never came up for four years — and this was at Oaks Christian, which is a football powerhouse. If I didn't know, I knew other parents didn't know."
Despite some expected backlash regarding the dangers of football, Blatt believes the movie can serve as a positive catalyst to improve awareness about head injuries.
"I don't want to scare parents and players away from sports. I just want to educate them because I want sports to be there tomorrow," Blatt said. "I truly believe if they take away sports from kids they will have worse problems than head injuries. Kids need sports for a million reasons."
Ventura County Star
Editorial: Staying on top of athletes’ risk of head injuries
Posted: Yesterday 12:47 p.m.
Professional sports fans, particularly football lovers, have a growing awareness of the risks and evaluations related to concussions.
The National Football League has worked to change its rules and reduce violent head-to-head contact. The league requires an independent observer to view all plays — with the power to call for an immediate evaluation of any player observed involved in a potential head-damaging blow.
The new Hollywood film "Concussion," starring Will Smith, brings a greater spotlight to the struggle it took to get the NFL to accept its role in trying to identify and mitigate concussions.
Colleges, particularly those with the bigger budgets, are also stepping up their awareness and testing related to concussions.
But more football players are involved in the sport in high school and at lower levels, and that's where attention to concussion protocols is sporadic. The Star's staff writer Rhiannon Potkey, who has been writing for years about concussions in sports, revealed in her story on the subject last week that some programs lack even the basic attention needed — and it is often because of a lack of money.
Scott Blatt, athletic trainer at Westlake High School, has been a leader in helping acquire information about concussions among high school athletes, and helping establish treatments. Recognizing the need for similar action elsewhere, Dr. Blatt, a chiropractor, has established the nonprofit Conejo Concussion Institute to help educate all those involved about concussions, and to continue the research among high school and youth athletes.
He also hopes the institute can be the catalyst for providing funding to pay for athletic trainers at schools that currently cannot afford the position on a regular basis.
Dr. Blatt is also aware that this is not just about football. Soccer and lacrosse are two other sports with growing incidents of concussions, and all sports have an inherent risk of head injuries that must be accounted for by coaches, parents and administrators.
But it takes money to fund the necessary research into head injuries among young athletes, and to provide the on-scene trained staffing who know how to deal with the issues.
Dr. Blatt is hopeful that the local business community will step up and offer financial support for this program. More information about the institute is available at its website, www.conejoconcussioninstitute.com, including a link to a GoFundMe site where they are raising money.
Will Smith, who has a home in Calabasas, told the Los Angeles Times he took the lead role in "Concussion" after realizing that as a parent he was not aware of the concussion issue while his son played football at Oaks Christian High School. "If I didn't know, I knew other parents didn't know."
We hope his performance and the release of the film will continue to draw attention to ways in which people can make this highly popular sport safer for all those who play.
And we hope these events will motivate individuals and organizations to join the effort by supporting the Conejo Concussion Institute. If moviegoers would just match what they spend in tickets and popcorn to see "Concussion," the institute would have a great start on its mission.