My 13-year old son suffered a mild concussion in a soccer game recently. He took a few days off of practice, seemed to be fine and went back to the usual routine of soccer and lacrosse several times a week. Am I a bad mom? According to the American Academy of Neurology (AAN), maybe . . .
The fact is concussions in youth sports present a serious risk that coaches, parents and athletes do not fully appreciate. Professional sports leagues (NFL, NHL, MLB) and the NCAA recently initiated programs to better assess and treat (mostly through rest) concussions in adult athletes.
But our young people are neither subject to these requirements nor beneficiaries of sports medicine professionals. The AAN wants that to change.
On November 1, AAN released a report and recommendations directed at public health policy-makers with the authority to regulate when athletes may return to the field after a head injury. The five recommendations may strike fear in policy-makers—state and local legislators, local school boards and superintendents, public health officials—because of the potential fiscal and practical impact. Mandating the presence of an athletic trainer at all practices and games is fanciful in a school district where the kids share cleats and other equipment. Requiring release by a medical professional trained in brain injury will mean that young athletes lacking health insurance will be sidelined, possibly unnecessarily. We know the benefits of keeping kids active and involved. But the AAN recommendations cannot be ignored.
Public health officials should rely on some of their traditional tools to address this public health problem, particularly educating all involved about the health consequences of “playing through” a concussion or rejoining the team before healing. But more is required here to really effectuate culture change among our youth athletes and their coaches.
That is where public health law comes into play. Public health lawyers should work to bring the research to the policy-makers and to assist in developing regulations and policies that are:
Fortunately, the slate is not blank. Several jurisdictions around the country have passed laws designed to reduce the long-term impact of youth sports concussions. The most aggressive of those laws was passed in Washington State last year. It mandates that high school coaches attend annual concussion training and prohibits high school athletes from returning to play after suffering a concussion until the athlete is released by a licensed health care provider. Public health officials and their attorneys need to huddle up and come up with a game plan to reduce the serious health problem of youth concussions.
Anyone who needs convincing should read about Zackery Lystedt (plus you’ll find a video and information on the resulting law by clicking on the link). Zackery is a now-wheelchair bound young man who suffered brain damage after returning to the football field despite suffering a concussion. Zackery was the impetus behind the Washington law. Or read about the October 29 death of Nathan Stiles, a Kansas City boy who died after suffering head trauma in his first game back after suffering from a concussion a few weeks earlier.
As for me and my 13-year old? Well, just recently my son’s lacrosse team made arrangements for all players to receive a baseline assessment to help a doctor diagnose a concussion and determine when the player may return to the game if he or she suffers a head injury. For $20 and a half an hour, I’m game.
This information was developed by Kathleen Dachille, director of the Network for Public Health Law – Eastern Region at the University of Maryland College of Law.
The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.