Protect student athletes from head injuries

Pro football isn't the only sport where athletes, including young players, can suffer a concussion. (Clem Murray/Staff Photographer)


With so much recent sports coverage and commentary devoted to the head injuries sidelining professional football players — four of them wearing Eagles green — Pennsylvania lawmakers should need no further reminder that student athletes face the same risks from concussions as the pros.  In fact, the legislators are doing something about the problem.
The state House recently voted 169-29 in favor of a bill that would put useful safeguards in place to spare more young players from suffering these brain injuries, as well as limit potentially damaging lifelong effects for those who do get hurt. Now it’s up to the state Senate to concur, approving what the Pennsylvania Medical Society calls “a good step to better protect the health of our school-aged athletes.”
Modeled after a Washington state law named for a teen football player who suffered a devastating brain injury, the Safety in Youth Sports Act sponsored by Reps. Tim Briggs (D., Montgomery) and Thomas R. Caltagirone (D., Berks) would keep brain-injured players off the field until they have time to heal. Any high school or junior-high athlete with a concussion would have to be cleared for a sports activity — including cheerleading — by a medical professional qualified in managing concussions.
The legislation also calls for education programs to alert coaches, players, and parents to the dangers of concussions, along with sanctions for coaches who field players without clearance. In cases where concussions are diagnosed properly, the measure could reduce the chance that athletes reinjure themselves — a risk that grows with each new concussion.
The return-to-play rules would be similar to the approach adopted last year by the National Football League, which requires an independent physician’s approval prior to a player getting back on the gridiron. Even with this law in place, though, school athletic programs will need to accurately diagnose players’ brain injuries — and to do so with none of the financial resources available to pro teams. In addition to having medical advisors on the sidelines, schools need to work to change a sports culture that tells injured players to shake it off.
The safety legislation will help — no question. Given that the science of concussion diagnosis and treatment itself is in flux, though, the best defense against student athletes’ head injuries is to prevent them, where possible, with coaching that puts players’ safety in first place.