By Bob Hohler
In an alarming case of young athletes being put at risk, five children suffered concussions last month in a Pop Warner football game that resulted in disciplinary action against both coaches and association presidents.
The injured children, all 10 to 12 years old, played for the Tantasqua Pee Wees Sept. 15 when they were overrun, 52-0, by a Southbridge team whose website's banner states, "Are You Tough Enough.''
The five children missed various numbers of school days because of their injuries, and one has not returned to the field.
The coaches, Southbridge's Scott Lazo and Tantasqua's Erik Iller, were suspended for the remainder of the season and placed on probation through the 2013 season after a lengthy hearing Thursday conducted by Central Mass. Pop Warner.
The association presidents, Lazo's brother, Doug Lazo of Southbridge, and Iller's wife, Jen Iller of Tantasqua, also were placed on probation through the 2013 season because they attended the game and failed to take action, according to the hearing committee.
In addition, the three officials who worked the game have been permanently banned by Central Mass. Pop Warner.
"Having multiple concussions in one game is something that should never happen, ever,'' said Patrick Inderwish, president of Central Mass. Pop Warner. "One concussion is too many.''
He said the hearing committee attributed the injuries to "bad officiating and decision-making by the coaches and all other parties involved.''
"That game doesn't represent what Pop Warner stands for in any way,'' Inderwish said.
Pop Warner regulations require officials to invoke a series of mercy rules once the gap in the score reaches 28 points. But the mercy rules went unenforced and at least one boy suffered a concussion on a play that should have been ruled dead.
Inderwish said the officials had an obligation to stop the game if they considered the safety of the players at risk.
Tantasqua filed a complaint after the game, alleging violations of weigh-in procedures, the mercy rule, and player safety. Yet the hearing committee ultimately ruled that the Tantasqua staff shared responsibility for the injuries.
Jen Iller, whose son played in the game and was not injured, said she was very disturbed by the concussions. But she said she considered the discipline against Tantasqua "completely unfair'' because the officials put the children at risk by failing to invoke the mercy rule and take other preventative measures.
Efforts to reach Scott Lazo, who is a member of the Southbridge School Committee, and Doug Lazo were unsuccessful.
Inderwish said the hearing committee disciplined the Tantasqua staff as severely as Southbridge's because the Tantasqua officials also violated Pop Warner's code of conduct obligating them to protect their players.
"There's an obligation to walk across the field and say, 'This thing is out of hand,' and nobody did that,'' he said.
Iller said Tantasqua staff members with emergency medical training evaluated the injured children during the game but did not consider their conditions serious enough to warrant further attention. Because the concussions were not diagnosed until after the game, the children continued playing. Numerous medical reports have indicated that playing with undiagnosed concussions increases the risk of more serious damage.
"Additional hits to the head in the minutes after a concussion can be devastating,'' said Chris Nowinski, president of the Sports Legacy Institute, which is dedicated to addressing the problem of sports concussions. "We do a terrible job diagnosing concussions at the time of injury because they are so difficult to see as an observer.
"There is almost no hope of diagnosing a concussion in a child at the time of injury unless it is obvious because they are knocked out.''
The incident raises questions about the ability of Pop Warner Little Scholars, the nation's largest youth football organization, to enforce the rules it established in 2010 aimed at reducing brain injuries caused by concussions. The rules were strengthened this year to limit contact in practices.
"Nothing is more important to Pop Warner than the safety and well-being of our players,'' the hearing committee stated. "Pop Warner has put in place the most stringent concussion rules in youth sports and we will continue to find ways to ensure football is safe and fun for our young athletes.''
Bob Hohler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.