In at least four states, the turn of the calendar to 2014 means new laws to better protect young athletes from the dangers of concussions and sport-related brain injuries. That means 49 states now have youth concussion laws in effect, with Mississippi the only holdout.
The laws come at a time when concussion-related injuries in football have become a major concern. But while football players experience about half of the concussions suffered in high school sports each year, the laws will also help athletes in sports like lacrosse, soccer, and gymnastics, where concussion rates are also high, and in all other sports too. At least four states passed laws that took effect January 1 (West Virginia, Arkansas, Montana, and South Carolina also passed laws in 2013 that took effect immediately):
Georgia: Georgia’s Return To Play Act requires coaches to remove players they suspect of suffering a concussion from competition until they are cleared by a doctor. The law also requires all schools, public and private, to provide educational information to parents and athletes about the risks of concussions and mandates that all schools institute concussion management plans.
Oregon: A new law in Oregon requires all youth sports coaches and officials to undergo education that will allow them to recognize the signs of concussions, and requires those coaches to hold any athlete who suffers a concussion out of sports until they receive medical clearance. It applies to all youth athletes, expanding an earlier law that covered only high school athletes.
Tennessee: Tennessee’s new law requires all coaches, parents, and athletes to undergo educational training about concussions and requires coaches to remove any athlete from competition who shows signs of a concussion. It applies to all public and private schools as well as to any recreational league for children under 18.
Wisconsin: A new law in Wisconsin expands on an already-existing law and requires schools to distribute educational information about concussions to students each year. Under the law, students will have to sign and return a form to school before they can participate in sports.
While the early conversation about concussions focused on the NFL thanks to a major lawsuit against the league, it is increasingly turning toward youth sports now. Last week, the father of a Mississippi high school football player sued the NCAA and the National Federation of High Schools last week, alleging that they had failed to protect his son and other young football players from the dangers of concussions. The suit, filed by Alvin Jobe in federal court, is seeking class action status to represent all high school football players and, while it names only the NCAA and NFHS, could help turn attention to what state governments and state-level high school federations have done to combat concussions. And while the state of Mississippi is not named in the suit, the litigation could further draw attention to the fact that it remains the only state with no youth concussion law on the books (two others, Arkansas and Wyoming, have laws deemed “weak” by advocacy organizations).
Mississippi could have passed its own concussion laws this year. The state legislature considered three of them. One would have required school boards to develop concussion monitoring plans and educational materials to distribute to coaches, parents, and students. Another would have done the same for youth organizations. A third, less specific bill would have required the development of concussion protocols. All three bills established return-to-play standards. And all three died in their respective legislative committee.
The federal government also took an interest in concussions in 2013. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin (D) proposed legislation that would mandate strict concussion education and management plans, while Reps. Joyce Beatty (D-OH) and Charlie Dent (R-PA) introduced a bill that would require that all college athletes undergo baseline testing to better identify, manage, and treat concussions. Neither bill received serious consideration in Congress in 2013.
More than 250,000 youth athletes suffered concussions in 2009, according to a study released in October by the National Academy of Sciences, and high school athletes are even more likely to suffer concussions than their older counterparts. One of the primary problems in youth sports (as in higher levels), the study suggested, is that athletes, parents, and coaches don’t have proper education about how to report and deal with concussions, problems the spate of recently-enacted laws aim to fix. Still, the biggest, the study found, is on another front: while states are rushing to improve laws, there remains a lack of research focused primarily on concussions in youth athletes. So while legislation to improve education and management are important, they may not be as effective as they could be until there is more information about how to reduce concussion incidence rates and how to treat and manage them when they happen.