Another look at youth concussions

In 2009, the National Football League launched a nationwide campaign to get states to pass laws governing youth sports concussions. It was an admirable endeavor, and also shrewd: The NFL knew that head injury concerns might eventually threaten both its player pipeline and fan enthusiasm.

Just five years later, Mississippi became the last state to pass a youth concussion law – a remarkable cross-country legislative achievement. But an Associated Press report this week revealed that more than half of those state laws were missing components critical to concussion legislation.

How did North Carolina do? Our law, the 2011 Gfeller-Waller Act, is among the strongest in the nation. But it could be even stronger.

The law, named after two N.C. high school athletes who died while playing in football games, contains four criteria experts believe are critical to concussion laws. The law mandates education for coaches about concussions, removal from competition if a head injury is suspected, written medical clearance for a return to action, and a concussion information form to be signed by both parents and athletes.

In fact, North Carolina is stricter than most states in requiring that medical clearance after an injury be obtained by a medical professional with expertise in concussions, and few other states have our state’s requirement for venue-specific emergency action plans at sports events. “I think that should be replicated in every state,” Judy Pulice, an executive with the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, told the Observer editorial board Thursday.

What can North Carolina do better? Our state, like many, hasn’t prescribed specific penalties for non-compliance, although that’s in the works. The North Carolina High School Athletic Association delivered proposed punishments last month to the N.C. Board of Education, said NCHSAA associate commissioner Rick Strunk on Thursday. The board should move on those promptly.

Also, North Carolina’s youth concussion law should be expanded to recreational sports leagues, as a handful of other states have done. That almost happened when the 2011 law was crafted, but advocates thought such reach might jeopardize the bill, said Kevin Guskiewicz, director of the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center.

Guskiewicz, who helped write the 2011 law, told the editorial board Thursday that the culture surrounding concussions has evolved to the point that the state should be ready to revise the legislation.

We agree. Parents are more aware, and more wary, of the dangers of contact sports like football. Studies and reports continue to show that concussions happen more frequently and with harsher consequences than previously known.

School districts may someday have to ask themselves what parents already are – do we want our young children playing a sport in which a concussion is an unsurprising result? For now, North Carolina can protect those children by making a good law even better.