In the past few years, state governments across the nation have passed countless laws and regulations aimed at protecting young athletes’ brains. Many of these bills are basically the same. Most commonly they designate that players are to be removed from practice and competition when they are suspected of having a concussion. Injured players can then only be cleared to return to play by a doctor or other approved medical professional.
While I support these regulations strongly as a way to improve player safety and protect players from more dangerous secondary injuries, a new piece of legislation aims to make a very worrying twist on this formula.
Reports indicate the North Carolina House of Representatives is considering legislation that would also allow parents to decide when their child is ready to return to the game.
While many parents may like the idea of this bill, taking the decision out of trained medical professionals’ hands would be a dangerous call.
Every parent likes to say “no one knows my child better than I do,” and that is especially true for health. But, the truth is that allowing those who are emotionally connected to the situation is a recipe for disaster.
Doctors are trained to focus only on health, without weighing in aspect such as a long-term sports career, the young athlete’s immediate happiness, or whether pulling out a star player when he’s injured could lead to a big loss. Most importantly, doctors are increasingly taught to exercise caution when assessing brain injuries because secondary injuries that occur when the brain is still vulnerable can be much more dangerous.
On the other hand, parents don’t always act in the most rational way. Emotions are in play, they are worried about their child’s chance of getting a sports scholarship, and may not be taught about the secondary risks of brain injuries. In many cases, parents may not be properly educated on concussions at all.
When Parents Overrule Coaches
I’m aware this isn’t easy to hear for many parents, but this exact issue has already been put to the test in New Mexico. A family took a New Mexico school to court last year after their son had been removed from a high school football game due to a suspected concussion.
Shawn Nieto was removed from a game after enduring a harsh hit during a game. Trainers and medical staff say the junior running back lost consciousness for 20-30 seconds, which would automatically qualify a player for a concussion assessment and removal from play. Staff then diagnosed Shawn with a concussion, which meant he would have to sit out from the sport for seven days and miss the state championship game.
However, the Nieto family says Shawn never suffered a concussion or lost consciousness. Despite never receiving any training from the school district or medical professionals, the family says they know well enough to decide whether their son was injured.
“We’re not rookies,” Peter Nieto said. “We know what a concussion is.”
In this case, the family won. Shawn Nieto’s doctor cleared him to play the day before the court case, which led to the judge saying the school system had no right to keep the player on the bench. The Nieto family won the court case, but they were in the wrong.
When Shawn Nieto was assessed by his family doctor he was showing no symptoms of a concussion. Based on this, the family doctor Karen Ortiz cleared Shawn. The day of the game however, the physician rescinded her opinion saying the family was not forthcoming about the extent of the injury.
“Had I understood that there was a loss of consciousness, I would have never provided medical clearance,” Ortiz wrote in a letter first published in the Albuquerque Journal.
The story highlights that unfortunately, parents aren’t always the best person to decide when their child is ready to play. They may but their child’s immediate happiness first, rather than focusing on their long-term health. Even worse, some parents may prioritize their child’s chance at scoring a college scholarship or becoming a sports star over the risks associated with playing after a brain injury.
Studies have shown that continuing to play after a brain injury can have a lasting effect on the brain. Not only does it slow the recovery from a concussion, it can contribute to cognitive issues that may take weeks or months to fully recede. In addition to this, playing with a concussion puts a player at high risk for a secondary brain injury which can be much more severe. In some cases, secondary brain injury can even be fatal.
Safety is Always Best
When a young athlete experiences a brain injury, the wise move is to exercise caution. Yes, most athletes will recover from a concussion within a relatively short amount of time and with few lasting effects. But, without a chance to heal, the effects of repeated head impacts after a concussion can have a serious toll.
“There’s no wiggle room,” said Bruce Carver, the school district’s athletics director, describing the policy intended to protect Shawn Nieto. “If somebody thinks it is [a concussion], we got the safe road and keep him out.”
The proposed legislation in North Carolina has already received strong pushback – both inside the state and nationally.
“I don’t want to bash anything that supports student safety in athletics,” Dr. Katie Flanagan, director of athletic training at East Carolina University, told Vocativ. “However, our state has a very robust concussion law. I’ll preface by saying I’m not a parent, but I don’t believe HB 116 is in the best interest of the athletes.”
Even professional football players have harshly criticized the bill. On Monday, New England Patriots defensive end and recent Super Bowl winner Chris Long attacked the bill on Twitter, saying, “I have a bill: Any parent that wants to bypass concussion protocol at the high school level should be banned from games.”
It is notable that Long is not typically so vocal about the implications of brain injuries in football. When asked by the Associated Press in 2016 about his thoughts on the issue, Long said, “I try not to think about it, but the evidence seems to be mounting that we’re in trouble. Eight years in, the damage is done.”
It is understandable that a parent would want to feel in control of their child’s health, especially when it could affect their child’s future. But, sometimes the best choice a parent can make is to listen to the medical professionals and err on the side of caution when their child may be injured.