Getting Serious About Concussions and Student Athletes

August 18, 2010

Last week, the National Football League announced that it will be hanging a poster in the locker rooms of all 32 teams this upcoming season to warn players about the dangers of concussions and what could happen should symptoms of such an injury be ignored. The league has made the concussion issue more of a priority following years of criticism – leveled by former players, experts and lawmakers – that the league was not doing enough to educate its players about the long-term effects of head injuries.

The issue of concussions is not just relegated to professional sports. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP), as many as 3.8 million sports and recreation related concussions are estimated to occur in the United States every year. Symptoms usually include confusion, head ache and blurred vision. In the more extreme cases vomiting and loss of consciousness can occur. But one of the major problems with concussions is that signs of the injury are not always that easy to recognize at first.

As for young people, the CDCP indicates that concussions account for nearly one in 10 sports injuries for those between 15-24 years of age, making sports second only to motor vehicle accidents as the leading cause of brain injury. The reason for this, according to a 2009 study conducted by the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, may be due to athletes returning to the playing field too soon. In fact, their study concludes that 40% of high school athletes who suffer concussions return to the field of play prematurely, thus putting themselves at greater risk for more severe injuries.

In an effort to raise awareness about the dangers of concussions in our high school athletes, states throughout the country are instituting new guidelines to keep players safe and to prevent further injuries. Hotbed football states such as Alabama and Tennessee recently put into place new rules that educate coaches and remove players who show signs of head injuries.

Here in Connecticut we have taken similar action. Earlier this year, the General Assembly unanimously passed SB 456, An Act Concerning Student Athletes and Concussions. The new law, which went into effect on July 1st, requires anyone who has a coaching permit issued by the State Board of Education and who coaches intramural or interscholastic athletics to be periodically trained in how to recognize and respond to head injuries and concussions.

It also requires that coaches take a student athlete out of any game or practice if the athlete (1) shows signs of having suffered a concussion after an observed or suspected blow to the head or body or (2) is diagnosed with concussion. The coach must keep the athlete out of any game or practice until the athlete has received written clearance to return to the game or practice from a licensed medical professional. The law pertains to all sports not just football.

No longer can we consider an athlete who receives a blow to the head as someone who simply got their “bell rung” where the player is back on the playing field in a matter of minutes. Concussions can have serious implications and we need to treat these injuries in a serious manner.

Sometimes it’s not easy to get a player out of a game, especially in the heat of battle when the game is on the line and the pressure to win is at its greatest. That is why I believe this new law is necessary because – with the proper training – coaches will not be able to ignore the signs of a concussion. As one of my colleagues said on the floor of the Senate, “when in doubt, sit them out.” With the fall sports about to begin, I believe that is the best policy.