Concussions and the Unavoidable

by Petrone Risk

With the NFL concussion lawsuits in the media spotlight and football season upon us, now is the time to ensure a safe environment for young athletes to practice and play.  Further, while some concussions are unavoidable, an effective treatment and return to play protocol can aid in protecting the athletes and your school district.

To achieve this goal, it requires that all parties “buy-in.”  This includes, parents, students, coaches, athletic trainers, school nurses, physical education teachers and, most importantly, the administration.   When all parties are equally informed and aware, the most effective means will be achieved.

A Concussion Is…

According to the “Concussion Management and Awareness Act,” a concussion is “a reaction by the brain to a jolt or force that can be transmitted to the head by an impact or blow occurring anywhere on the body.” Essentially a concussion results from the brain moving back and forth or twisting rapidly inside the skull.

What Did We Learn From the NFL?

The most relevant piece of information that we learned from the NFL-funded report was that high school athletes are twice as likely to suffer from a concussion compared to a collegiate or professional athlete.  This is particularly bad news for school districts because high school athletes are not equipped with the medical support staff that colleges and professional sport franchises have.  Equally, high schools often do not allocate the top-of-the-line equipment that colleges and professional sports teams have.

In any event, neither medical professionals, nor sports equipment (even helmets) can prevent concussions.  However, being informed can aid in effective recovery for high school athletes.

What Can We Do Now?

To protect high school athletes, and even potentially insulate school district’s from the type of liability that the NFL recently faced, New York has set forth requirements for school districts.  Implementation of these requirements is largely left to the school district’s discretion.  Therefore, proper implementation can mean the difference between a temporary and permanent injury to both the student and school district.

New York’s requirements are made up of three components: education, information, and removal from athletics.  While these three components require some degree of “buy-in” from all relevant parties, they do not necessarily provide a useful mechanism in doing so.

For example, the first and second components, i.e. education and information, require that coaches, athletic trainers, school nurses, physical education teachers and, most importantly, the administration are all properly certified and that parents sign an informational waiver.  The effectiveness of these two components is dependent upon how well the parties are educated and ultimately certified and parents reading and fully comprehending all the information contained in the waiver.  Yet there are ways to achieve these components effectively.

Although the above proposed action items are a good start, they are not enough to adequately insulate our schools.  In addition, a school district might determine that an informational meeting before the commencement of a sport season, in addition to disbursement of the required waiver, may be much more effective.  This meeting would require employees of the school district to be fully informed, as they would be presenting the information to the parents.  Moreover, this forum provides parents an opportunity to ask questions, and even become more familiar with all parties that are required to “buy-in” to prevention, treatment and recovery of athletes.

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