17-year-old Kenney Bui, a senior at Evergreen High School in Burien, Washington, died from serious injuries sustained in a football game in October 2015. His death came after the wide receiver and defensive back suffered a mild concussion a month earlier, on September 4th, which put him at greater risk of injury. His doctor cleared the boy thirteen days following that injury, and Kenney’s dad begged his son to discontinue the sport. But, his son refused, telling him it was the only sport available to him. Kenney had also torn ligaments in his knee two years prior to his death and was taken to the hospital. His dad began begging him to give up football way back then, but knew the choice was ultimately up to his son. “Anything like school or work, my wife and I make the decision,” Ngon Bui explained. “When a sport comes in, he makes his own decision no matter what. We would not be able to stop him. He makes his own decision.”
The nature of Bui’s injuries was not immediately clear when he was transported to the hospital in the fourth quarter of the game. However, when he stepped off the field during Evergreen’s game against Highline high school on 2 October he seemed dazed. It was evident the relatively small student at 5’8 and 150 lbs was critically injured. Following the incident, Bui underwent surgery for a concussion at Harborview Medical Center and never woke up. He died under the care of the hospital’s staff three days after being admitted and his autopsy report said the football player died of blunt force trauma to the head.
Superintendent of Evergreen High School, Susan Enfield, called the student’s death a “devastating loss for all of us”. His dad echoed this. “He was a great kid and had respect,” Ngon Bui said. “I would be talking to my friends and always he comes up and talks to them, people he didn’t know. He had so much respect.” Bui was a star student in the school of Technology and Communications High School. He had a 4.0 grade point average and was set to graduate at the top of his class. He was hoping to attend a nearby university the following fall.
Bui’s death marked the 30th among high school football players in the course of a decade, and incited the largest ever study into the risks and reasons for players’ deaths. Suspected causes of increased risk have included anything from broken necks to head injuries, to heat exhaustion. Poor equipment and a lack of reporting injuries may also put one at risk. However, the number of football players sustaining life threatening injuries has been alarming in recent years and the study has concluded there are flaws in the concussions testing itself.
Concussion testing on the athletic field has historically depended upon comparing an athlete’s post-concussion neurocognitive performance with the results of a baseline test administered prior to this. Experts believe some athletes may “sandbag” the concussion test by giving an effortless baseline performance so they can return to playing. Sandbagging can ruin the validity of the test and puts athletes in danger, because the brain is susceptible to further trauma. A researcher recently developed a statistical technique to detect when an athlete does just that. The technique, which uses Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing, or ImPACT, a computerized tool consisting of eight subtests that gauge neurocognitive performance is designed to pinpoint more readily when athletes are on the field “impaired”. Using ImPACT in the preseason helps establish a cognitive baseline that can be compared against the results of a post-concussion test.
Kathryn Higgins, a postdoctoral researcher with the Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior at Nebraska said of the risk testing, “There’s so much room for work to be done. We’ve come so far in the last 10 years — we know so much more than we did — but there are still a lot of things that we don’t know.”