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Legislatures Tackle Concussions in School Athletics

Growing concerns about the risks associated with serious head injuries are catching the attention of state legislatures.

In 2008, no state required that middle school and high school athletes who suffered concussion symptoms receive medical clearance to return to play. Today at least nine do. The shift reflects growing concern about the risks of concussions to young people -- a concern that’s quickly catching the attention of state legislatures nationwide.

Concussions have always been a part of sports, but there’s an increasing recognition of their seriousness, especially for people whose brains haven’t yet fully developed. “Every concussion is a brain injury,” says Dawn Comstock, an Ohio State University researcher who conducts an annual study of high school sports injuries. Comstock’s research shows that in the 2009-2010 school year, high school athletes suffered more than 187,000 concussions in just nine sports.

Amid these alarming numbers, Washington became the first state to act. In 2009, the Legislature was spurred by the story of a middle school football player who spent months in a coma after suffering two concussions in the same game. The state ordered any middle school or high school athlete suspected of having a concussion to stay on the sidelines until getting written permission to return by someone trained to evaluate concussion symptoms. The goal, says Washington Sen. Curtis King, was to help protect athletes from themselves. “Here’s a young man or young woman that is very competitive that’s in a game,” King says. “Once they feel a little better, they want to get back in to help their team win.” The law also included provisions to educate coaches, parents and players about concussions.

Not every state is embracing Washington’s approach. Idaho considered a similar bill, but it faltered over the question of whether coaches could be held liable if they failed to remove a player with a concussion from a game. “The concern was that the burden was going to be placed on the coach to determine whether the player has had a concussion or not,” says Idaho State Rep. Brent Crane. “The coach is focused on implementing the strategy of the game.” Ultimately, Idaho approved a law focused solely on education.

Still, the objections in many states have been nonexistent. Oklahoma and Virginia both approved their legislation unanimously. Several other states are considering such laws, while elsewhere state regulators and school athletic associations have mandated a similar approach, even without a law on the books. It appears Washington’s legislation is close to going viral.

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Josh Goodman

Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..

Twitter: @governing


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