For more than 30,000 young Quebecers, football is both a passion and a major risk for serious head injuries.
But neither Football Quebec nor the Quebec Student Sport Federation (better known in the province by the acronym RSEQ) have any idea just how many players are getting concussions on the field.
The RSEQ, which counts approximately 186,000 student athletes among its ranks in all sports, currently has no one in charge of safety.
As for Football Quebec, its safety regulations do not contain a single line about the obligation for teams to implement any kind of protocol regarding the detection and management of concussions, not to mention a protocol on returning to the game after being on the receiving end of a head injury.
That information comes from an investigation by Radio-Canada’s Enquête investigative journalism team.
‘I felt a flash in my head’
Last October, the star running back for Montreal’s Collège Notre-Dame football team experienced his second concussion in a month.
“I really felt a flash in my head at the moment of the hit, and after that I was all disoriented,” says François Rocheleau.
Rocheleau received proper medical treatment and follow-up for his injury, but as the Enquête team discovered, some young football players in Quebec aren’t so lucky.
Members of Enquête's investigative team spent the fall on Quebec football fields, and they observed between five and 10 concussions per team in a single season — nearly one player in five.
When Enquête asked Alain Roy, the director of the Quebec Student Sport Federation (better known by its French name, the Réseau du Sport étudiant du Québec), for the exact number of concussions afflicting young football players last year, he wasn’t able to provide a number.
“We don’t currently have the tools in place for this kind of census,” Roy told Radio-Canada.
No protocol for concussions
The danger of concussions in football recently came to light when 4,500 National Football League players and their families successfully sued the league for $765 million.
The settlement was reached late last summer after the players alleged that the NFL knew more than it divulged to players about the danger of repeated hits to the head.
But, according to Enquête, the risk of head injury is higher for the 14,000 young high school football players in Quebec than it is for professional football players.
Football Quebec is responsible for the sport’s development and safety in the province.
High schools are supposed to submit incident reports for every concussion to Football Quebec.
However, the organization’s director Jean-Charles Meffe also seemed unaware of the extent of the problem.
When asked whether he thought Enquête's observation of between five and 10 concussions per team was a realistic number of injuries, he said he’d be surprised if it were true.
“That doesn’t make sense,” he said.
Meffe said he rarely gets reports of concussions, and when he does, Football Quebec doesn’t follow up — and that’s fine by him.
“We’re happy to not receive them, honestly. Well, no, it’s because I’m telling you that we’re two in this federation,” Meffe said, referring to the organization being short-staffed.
No school rules
Although youth football is rapidly expanding in Quebec, the measures taken to protect players have not been expanding in tandem.
Enquête made access to information requests to 30 schools with football teams — 20 teams from divisions 1 and 1b which, in principle, are made up of the best Quebec student athletes -- with the intention of understanding what information schools have on managing head injuries.
From the documentation received, Collège Notre-Dame was actually one of the better-equipped schools in the province. The documents also showed that the better a school’s football team was, the more risk of concussions there was.
However, Enquête's team concluded that this probably actually means that schools with the better teams were also better at documenting players’ injuries — not that their players were getting injured more frequently.
“We are easily 10 years behind in Quebec, and also in Canada, on the management of concussions. This means that our young people are risking their lives in playing these sports,” said Dr. Dave Ellemberg, a specialist in head injuries who wrote a book on concussions in sports.
Visit Radio-Canada's special feature page (in French) for more on their investigative journalists' look at football-related injuries among Quebec's youth.