WMBF Investigates what's being done to protect student athletes

(WMBF) – More than 7.8 million students participate in high school sports, and that number continues to rise. However, football had the largest decline in participation last year. While it still remains one of the most popular sports, the rapid decline could be over safety concerns.

Reporter Stephanie Robusto investigated to find out what is being done to protect your student athlete leading into this season.

In October 2012, Ronald Rouse took the field for his homecoming football game as a senior at Hartsville High School, it's the last game he would ever play.

"I wasn't at the game that night, so I didn't see him. I didn't get to tell him I love him, or to hold his hand," says his mother, Yvonne Rouse. Ronald Rouse, just 18 years old, collapsed on the field. He was able to get up and walked to the sidelines, speaking to his dad for a brief moment

"I would like to see our children become our priority, instead of winning" says Ronald's grandmother, Shirley Moore.

Randall Hood is the attorney handling a wrongful death suit on behalf of Ronald Rouse's family. For Hood, a former football player himself, what happened to Ronald goes far beyond one student's story, beyond one family, one team, even just one high school.

"That awareness can save a life," Hood says. "If we save even one life, everything is worth it"

That awareness centers around Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or HCM. It is a disease the mayo clinic describes as the heart muscle becoming abnormally thick, making it harder for the heart to pump blood.

"HCM is seven times more likely to occur in the African American population than the Caucasian population", Hood says, adding that he believes there was a lack of action taken leading up to Ronald's death, mistakes made which could happen to any student athlete.

It starts, according to Hood, with inefficient physical exams for high school. "That is a minimum," he says. "A bare minimum. It's not a reasonable minimum. You need to have a situation where you ensure the safety of a child."

After quick $10 physical performed in the school gym, Hood alleges there was no follow up to abnormalities found in Ronald's exam, for example: an elevated heart rate which Hood believes should have set off alarms for a physician checking out the large left tackle.

"If they go to the parent and tell them everything, every solitary thing, and let them make the decision, that may be a point," Hoods says. "But until there are equal resources and equal knowledge, it doesn't make sense."

Football is a full contact sport - parents know that before letting their child on a field, so where do you draw that line? Is the safety and health of a student athlete the responsibility of the parent, or the school and coach?

"I think it has to come back to the parents," says Bruce Huilon the commissioner of officials with the South Carolina High School League Athletics. "In any forum, any venue is a privilege, it's not a right. If you want your child to play, you should take any and all steps available to you to make sure it is physically able to play." Huilon, also serves on the South Carolina Medical Advisory Committee

When asked if the current physical exams and safety requirements in place are keeping up with the evolving medical information we now have, Huilon responded: "I think they're barely keeping up."

Physicals aside, the safety of football does continue to evolve as more medical knowledge is available. Think of how many changes you've seen to uniforms over the years, from leather helmets in the past, to the current, modern pads used. The commissioner and the attorney do agree on one thing: education is key. For example, athletes now go through training on the risk of concussions, and Hood thinks the same could be possible for cardiac issues like HCM.

"When you go through it, athletes will know signs and symptoms of a concussion: fatigue, headaches, Huilon explains. "And if the athlete knows to tell the coach, then you have two people looking out for the athlete, the coaches and the athlete themselves."

Leading into this football season, you may see other changes on this field, including the use of AEDs and immersion tanks during games and practice. Having those there, nearby your student athlete, is strongly encouraged by the South Carolina High School League. But as of right now, they're simply guidelines, and not requirements

When asked why not make these a requirement, Huilon said: "Well if you make something a requirement, then you have to find a way to fund it. Each district is run by the state, and unless the state will fund it, you just can't find the money for it. And you can't require something on a school if they have to way to fund it or purchase it."

Hood said that one requirement should be an ambulance at the game, "which was not at the game of Ronald Rouse."

According to the lawsuit filed by the Rouse family, Lake Robinson Rescue Squad had an agreement with Hartsville High school to attend home games, however, they were not there the night Rouse collapsed. It may surprise you to know it is actually not required by the league for EMS, or even an athletic trainer, to be present at your child's game.

"The SC Medical Advisory Committee and the national committee can only advise these things," Huilon says. "They can't require them. But again, it goes back to education. We've put more information in the hands of our coaches and administrators and they can find ways to search and fund these things. I don't think there is a school administrator or coach in this country who would not take advantage of it if they had a means to get there."

Hood hopes to use Ronald's story as a way to get there faster - to put resources in place to protect all student athletes. "Don't let these children die because you feel like, ehhh, it's going to be okay," Hood says.

It could start with a shift in mentality before your student athlete even steps foot onto the field

"Athletes are competitive by nature," Huilon says. "'If I miss a practice, or two or three, someone will take my spot.' But what is more important? The long-term health of an athlete, or missing a game because you lost your starting position? That's what we have to change. We have to change the mindset of our athletes that there are more important than this game."

The Korey Stringer Institute, named after the Minnesota Vikings tackle who died from heat stroke during training camp in 2001, points out cardiac emergencies are one of the top causes of sudden death in sports. Each minute that passes before you can get an AED to that student drops their survival rate by ten percent.

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