STATE PUTTING FOCUS ON CONCUSSIONS

Legislation in the works to protect school athletes

PETE IORIZZO STAFF WRITER
Section: Sports,  Page: C1

Date: Sunday, August 14, 2011

Schalmont High linebacker Alex Hildebrand never has suffered a concussion in his 10 years playing football, but he still wanted to upgrade his school-issued helmet.


"I figure your head is a pretty important thing to protect," said Hildebrand, who will be a senior this coming school year.


So using money he made mowing the lawns at a golf course, Hildebrand opened his own wallet and paid $500 for a Riddell 360, one of the newest helmets available.


"It did surprise me that he would be thinking about safety, protecting himself like that," said his mother, Barb. "The awareness in the community really has changed."


Concussions have been a talking point at all levels of football for about a decade. But now, high school officials and coaches say, all the discussion finally is evolving into real, tangible action.


Earlier this summer, the state legislature passed a law that for the first time demands coaches bench players who show any symptoms of a concussion. The player needs a doctor's permission to return.


The law, called "The Concussion Management and Awareness Act," is expected to be sent to the governor's office later this summer or fall. If signed, as is expected, it would take effect for the 2012-13 school year.


Though critics claim it fails to offer a comprehensive approach to dealing with concussions, the law does underscore the way in which awareness about head injuries is leading to change.


"It's really similar to the heat issue and the need for kids to be hydrated," said Nina Van Erk, the executive director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association. "Years ago there wasn't an understanding, and now there are water breaks.


"With concussions, we really believe coaches are removing kids and having them evaluated."


New York joins 30 other states to have passed concussion-related legislation, according to Education Week. Though New York's law applies to all school sports, it figures to resonate most in football, which always has been at the forefront of head-injury conversations.


When in recent years the NFL began to address concussions with regulations and rules changes, the discussions trickled down to high schools. Twenty states have passed concussion laws aimed at high school students just in the past year.


"Back when I was in high school, I can't remember anybody being diagnosed with a concussion," said Shaker High coach Greg Sheeler, who played for Gloversville High in the late 1990s. "But once there was so much publicity about it and you heard so much about it, everyone just became more aware."


Football practices officially begin across Section II on Monday, ushering in the high-impact collisions that make football players particularly prone to head injuries.


Concussions occur when head trauma causes brain cells to be "shaken up," said Hamish Kerr, the head team physician at Siena College and program director at the Sports Medicine Fellowship.


"Once they're shaken up, they become very sensitive," Kerr said, leading to symptoms like headaches, nausea and dizziness, among others.


New York's legislation states that if there is any doubt as to whether an athlete has suffered a concussion, he or she must be removed from competition. The player can't return until all symptoms have subsided for 24 hours; even then, the player still needs written clearance from a doctor.


"I think this has a common-sense approach," Kerr said.


But critics point to several missing components from the law, including:


-- Players have to be cleared by a physician, but not necessarily a doctor with credentials in treating head injuries.


-- The law does not address how and when injured athletes should return to the classroom.


-- The law doesn't cover recreational leagues, such as Little League or Pop Warner.


"I was disappointed that the legislation didn't go far enough in taking into account all of the issues," said Michael Kaplen, chairman of the Traumatic Brain Injury Services Coordinating Council.


Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Long Island), one of the bill's sponsors, said the bill wasn't intended to be all-encompassing, only to ensure schools are taking at least the same basic steps toward preventing head injuries. Before, districts could set their own policies.


"This is a baseline, and we may move forward in the future," Hannon said.


Some school districts already have.


Though it's not required by law, at least three Section II school districts -- Shenendehowa, Guilderland and Queensbury -- require baseline testing, or screening players for symptoms when they're healthy. This way, the results can be used for comparison after an injury occurs.


Shenendehowa, in fact, first implemented a concussion-management plan similar to the one spelled out in the bill about three years ago, athletic director Chris Culnan said.


"A lot of the things that come out in this legislation, I would hope most schools are doing those things," he said.


The numbers suggest they are. The Center for Injury Research and Policy reported a sharp increase in concussions among high school athletes over the past two school years, but experts consider that evidence of more awareness and better diagnosis, not more injuries.


That jibes with the observations of football coaches, who said they now send athletes to a trainer or doctor if there's even suspicion of a head injury.


"You no longer just say, 'Ah, jeez, he had a little stinger, he's got a headache and he'll be fine," Niskayuna coach John Furey said.


But most important of all might be the steps taken by athletes themselves.


Hildebrand, the Schalmont senior, loves his new helmet so much he uses a seat belt to strap it into the passenger seat of his car when driving to football camps.


Already he is sure his big expenditure for the summer has made him safer.


"I've taken a few pretty good hits with it, and you know what?" he said. "No headaches."


Reach Pete Iorizzo at 454-5425 or piorizzo@timesunion.com.





The concussion law


The Concussion Management and Awareness Act is expected to be signed into law later this summer or fall, meaning it would take effect for the 2012-2013 school year. Here are some of the bill's highlights:


1. Any student suspected of suffering a concussion must be removed from competition. He or she then must be symptom-free for 24 hours and cleared by a doctor before returning.


2. Information about concussions must be included on all parental consent forms required for participation in any sport.


3. All coaches, physical education teachers, school nurses and trainers must complete a course on concussions every two years.


4. The state health commissioner is granted the power to develop additional rules and regulations regarding concussion management.





Inside


C10 Highlights of the new bill.