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The state of Washington led the way last year, passing what is considered the nation’s strongest return-to-play statute. Athletes under 18 who show concussion symptoms can’t take the field again without a licensed health care provider’s written approval. Several other states, including California and Pennsylvania, have similar bills pending.
Elsewhere, the Maine legislature passed a law last year that creates a working group on the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of concussions in young athletes. In New Jersey, there’s no state law to regulate how head injuries should be handled for athletes, but the legislature has allowed a commission to look into brain injury research.
“There’s no doubt that the majority of the people believed it was time and that it was extremely important to do something like this,” said Mike Colbrese, executive director of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association. “The mantra for the movement has been, ‘When in doubt, sit them out.’”
These state-level efforts come as a congressional committee prepares to hold a forum in Houston, looking at how high schools and colleges deal with concussions. The same House panel has held hearings on head injuries in the NFL, and the NCAA recently endorsed the idea of requiring athletes to be cleared by medical personnel before returning to competition if they show concussion symptoms.
Estimates for the number of sports- and recreation-related concussions in the United States each year go as high as 3.8 million, according to the Brain Injury Association of America.
The Washington law is named after Zackery Lystedt, who suffered a life-threatening brain injury after he returned to his middle school football game in 2006 following a concussion. Lystedt’s family contacted Republican state Rep. Jay Rodne for help, and last May, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed the new legislation.
“I was honored to really be a part of it,” Rodne said. “It’s a testament to Zackery and his mom and dad.”
Although there were some initial concerns about how the law would be enforced —and whether schools in rural areas would have access to enough medical services to ease the burden of complying—Colbrese says the rule has opened some eyes around the state.
He says schools have claimed their athletes are suffering more concussions than last year, but the reality is that they aren’t. “You didn’t know about them last year,” he said.
About a month ago, Rodne’s eighth-grade son, Tye, sustained a concussion while wrestling.
“It brought everything really to home, so to speak,” Rodne said. “He had to sit out for a week, and he had to get checked by the doctor.”
Assembly member Mary Hayashi is hoping California will soon have a similar requirement. After learning about concussion-related health problems for retired football players, the Democrat has led a push to strengthen her state’s laws.
Hayashi introduced two bills last month. One would require high school coaches to get training on potentially catastrophic injuries in addition to first aid certification already required. The other would require an athlete suspected of having a concussion to get written permission from a doctor.
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