Amid new research showing that head-to-head contact in youth sports may be just as dangerous as such contact at the professional level, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin (D) has introduced legislation that would enhance concussion management and safety protocols in primary and secondary schools across the country. Durbin announced the legislation at the beginning of high school football season in August. He formally introduced it Wednesday, just a week after a high school football player from New York died after suffering a head-to-head hit.
Between the time Durbin announced and filed the Protecting Student Athletes from Concussions Act, it received endorsements from six major sports organizations: the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball, U.S. Soccer, NCAA, and USA Football, which oversees youth football. The legislation would direct states to “develop concussion safety guidelines for public school districts that include posting educational information on school grounds and school websites about concussion symptoms, risks and recommended responses for student athletes, parents, coaches and school officials.” It would also mandate policies that require athletes suspected of suffering concussions sit out of practice or games for the rest of the day, a standard recommended by numerous sports medicine and neurological associations.
“Young athletes are at the greatest risk for sports-related concussions, and we need to make sure we are doing all we can to protect them while they compete,” Durbin said in a release. “My bill sets, for the first time, minimum state requirements for the prevention and treatment of concussions to ensure students, parents and coaches have the information they need to effectively address head injuries.”
Illinois, Durbin’s home state, has some of the more advanced youth concussion laws in the country. Illinois law requires any student suspected of suffering a concussion to obtain evaluation and clearance from a medical professional before returning to play. It also requires school districts to provide students, parents, and coaches with education about the dangers of concussions. Though some states have similar laws, not all have followed. Durbin’s law would change that.
Whether it stands any chance of advancing in a Congress paralyzed by talks of government shutdowns and debt limit fights is anyone’s guess. Reps. Charlie Dent (R-LA) and Joyce Beatty (D-OH) introduced bipartisan legislation in August that would mandate baseline concussion tests and evaluations for college athletes. Once Congress gets past its current intransigence, protecting athletes from concussions may be a place to find bipartisan success.
Legislation like Durbin’s is especially important given new research released Wednesday that found that hits to the heads of youth football players carry a similar magnitude to those felt by adult players in collegiate and professional football. The research from the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering also found that the majority of hits come in practice, not games. There is not enough research yet to determine the full impact of concussions on youth football players and other athletes, but existing research shows that concussions and basic hits to the head can have devastating impacts on young athletes.
The new research and other studies like it may ultimately prove that this sort of legislation — and similar bills like it in state legislatures — need to go even further. Other studies have made the case that, in football, where the majority of the 140,000 concussions suffered by youth athletes occur, states should reduce the amount of contact in practices. Some states, even the football hotbed of Texas, have already done that, and it’s a recommendation teams at the highest levels of football are taking to heart as well. But unlike the NFL and other professional sports, athletes at the youth and even college levels don’t have unions or other methods to help protect them. Legislation from Congress may be the most sensible way to do that, and Durbin’s and Dent-Beatty are a step in the right direction.
“The professionals have a players union to protect them, but in many ways, the athletes that need the most protection have the least formal protection,” Dr. Vernon Williams, a neurologist who advises high school, collegiate, and professional teams on concussion management, told the New York Times. “As you get earlier in age, the contrast is more striking.”
Legislation from Congress, even one as paralyzed as the 113th edition is, may be the most sensible way to close that gap, and in that sense, the Durbin and Dent-Beatty bills could be major steps in the right direction for young athletes.