As a lawsuit challenging the NCAA’s practices on concussions continues to proceed through federal court, two members of Congress introduced legislation to plug gaps the NCAA has left unfilled on how players suspected of suffering head injuries are tested and evaluated. The legislation from Reps. Charlie Dent (R-PA) and Joyce Beatty (D-OH), introduced Thursday, would mandate that colleges perform baseline concussion testing on athletes who play contact sports, The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Brad Wolverton reported.
Baseline testing requires pre-season tests of each athlete, as well as tests immediately after a player suffers a potential head injury, so that the results can be compared to diagnose concussions. That allows doctors and trainers to have a better understanding of whether athletes are fit to return to play. 66 percent of schools currently require baseline testing, according to a 2010 NCAA survey.
While the NCAA makes recommendations on how concussions should be treated, it does not have standard concussion treatment rules. Instead, it requires schools to submit a concussion management plan that details their protocols for treating players who suffer or are suspected of suffering concussions. According to documents released as part of the lawsuit, though, the NCAA does not penalize schools for not submitting those plans and has no monitoring or enforcement mechanisms in place to ensure that the plans are followed.
The legislation also targets injuries by requiring top Division I schools to provide multi-year scholarships to athletes in an effort to protect injured players and their ability to report those injuries. The NCAA gives schools the option to offer multi-year scholarships, but when they don’t, injured players can lose financial aid and their spot on the team. That aspect of the legislation is similar to a law California enacted in 2012 that guarantees multi-year scholarships at the state’s largest schools, and Dent and Beatty argued Thursday that ensuring those agreements would make players more likely to admit injuries because they wouldn’t worry about losing scholarships.
The legislation does not address one of the most glaring gaps in how the NCAA treats concussions: its lack of return-to-play standards for concussed players. The same 2010 survey found that less than 50 percent of NCAA members require a concussed player to see a physician before he or she returns to play, and 39 percent have no guidelines for how long athletes must sit out after suffering a concussion. Nearly half of the schools said they had allowed a concussed player to return to play the same day or game the injury occurs. Establishing standard concussion testing protocols is an important step, but stronger standards on return-to-play guidelines are important too.
That’s not to say this legislation, which has six co-sponsors in Congress, wouldn’t be a major step forward in how athletes are evaluated. It does, however, suggest how multi-faceted the concussion problem is, and how lax the NCAA has been in dealing with it. And while this legislation isn’t likely to wind its way through Congress any time soon, it is another reminder that the NCAA’s refusal to take its concussion rules seriously means it is failing to protect its athletes from the dangers of sports, the very mission it was founded to fulfill.