In an effort to bolster football's bruised reputation of being a dangerous sport that can lead brain damage, Canadian youth leagues are putting players as young as seven through new concussion testing.

Heightened awareness around the devastating repercussions of head injuries has put North American football leagues in one of their biggest battles.

Some programs are taking every step they can to ensure their sport is safe. Two years ago, the Calgary Bulldogs Football Association implemented mandatory baseline testing for young athletes between the ages of seven and 18.

The testing provides vital information about a player's brain function and can detect early signs of head injury. Football officials in Windsor followed suit this year, introducing a similar program.

In Ontario, the Windsor Minor Football Association and Windsor Football League, both youth football leagues, introduced the testing this month.

"We wanted parents to know that football is a safe sport, much safer when it was back in the 70s and 80s, when it was legal to actually hit people in the head with punches and arm swings," said Paul Horoky, president of the Windsor Minor Football Association. 

Establishing a baseline

Paul Horoky

Paul Horoky, president of the Windsor Minor Football Association. (Derek Spalding/CBC)

The neuro-cognitive testing is designed by ImPACT, which is the same standard used by almost all professional sports leagues, including the NHL and CFL.

Tests are done online to measure an athlete's neuro-cognitive functioning, letting medical staff know how an individual processes information.

Joel Gagne of Active Body Physio Therapy, in LaSalle, Ont., heads the testing for Windsor Minor Football program, which is expected to be used by other sports leagues soon.

Gagne gave several examples of how the tests work, including a word test. Players are shown lists of words and then are later asked if specific words appeared on the screen.

Once a baseline is set, concussions are easy to identify because people's ability to process information changes.

"You're trying to find out what your normal functioning is — how your brain processes information normally — so that when you get a concussion and your brain is affected, we can see the differences between them," he said.

Just one tool

Baseline testing should be used as one of several tools in the promotion of brain-injury awareness, according to Dr. Neilank Jha, one of the world's leading concussion experts.

The neurosurgeon at Toronto Western Hospital's University Health Network has worked with experts around the world to develop clinical concussion management.

"Baseline testing gives an opportunity to educate parents, kids, coaches … about the importance of the removal of kids from play if they suspect a concussion," he said.

He also urges all sports leagues to use brain-injury awareness programs at the start of every season to educate players, parents and coaches about the concussions.

"When a child may have a suspected concussion, you also have the teammates, the coaches, the parents, who are very rigorous in ensuring this is managed correctly and therefore results in preventing further damage," Jha said.

His research indicates about 20 per cent of athletes in all sports suffer concussions every year. Of those players, about 90 per cent of them recover within a week. 

About 10 per cent develop concussion symptoms beyond that point. For those athletes, it's vital to determine the symptoms early and initiate injury management protocol. 

Registration decline

With new scientific breakthroughs about concussions rolling out, football programs everywhere have seen a decline in young athletes signing up to play.

Windsor registration numbers dropped this year after parents pulled players, who were otherwise eligible to return, according to Horoky.

"With football across North America, the numbers are down. There's no hiding that fact," he said.

Parents rarely tell coaches they pulled their children because of a fear of getting brain injuries, but Horoky and his crew know the real reason.

"You know why, but they don't really tell you why in the end," he said.

"We've developed safe contact and safe tackling regimens that all our coaches have to abide by," Horoky said. "Our goal is to ensure the player at the end of the day comes home intact."