British Boy’s Death Leads to New Focus on Concussions in Youth Sports

A lengthy article published earlier this month by the New York Times (see link below) is a fascinating addition to the growing public conversation here in the United States on youth sports and concussions.

The piece tells the story of one family’s struggle to change the laws related to concussions and youth sports in Scotland after their 14-year-old son “died after being hit in the head multiple times during a rugby match in which he should have been pulled from the field.” In the wake of their son’s death the bereaved parents became very public advocates for a re-thinking of youth sports and partnered with some of Britain’s most prominent doctors to “produce some of the most comprehensive concussion guidelines in the world.” The key difference between Scotland and the United States, according to the paper, is that the governing bodies of individual sports are no longer allowed to set their own protocols for when an athlete should be pulled off the field and how he or she should be assessed. Instead, “blanket guidelines aim to protect all amateur athletes and take the guesswork out of assessing potential concussions by calling for players to be removed from the game at the first suspicion of injury.”

While no equivalent national standard exists here in the United States we in Oregon are lucky enough to have something along these lines at the state level. In 2009 legislation known as “Max’s Law” required Oregon school districts to use a standard set of concussion guidelines. Four years later a companion piece of legislation known as “Jenna’s Law” extended that requirement to non-school athletic programs such as club sports, travel teams and leagues organized at the municipal or county level.

The newspaper notes, Britain’s experience demonstrates just how difficult it is to get something like this approved at a national level. “(Sports) leaders in Britain – where rugby is the biggest full-contact sport that is widely played – resisted calls for action, saying concussions were an American problem synonymous with football and helmets,” the Times reports. The paper also notes that while the change is dramatic, especially where injuries to children are concerned, it will ultimately take time to filter completely into the nation’s sports DNA. Just this month, according to the Times, a 23-year-old British woman died from a head injury sustained playing rugby. The paper reports that she “had sustained ‘a couple’ of other concussions in the past but had taken time off to recuperate.” That, in turn, highlights a lesson we in the United States have been learning in recent years: that the danger in youth sports comes not only from the single large blow, but also from repeated smaller head traumas from which the athlete may only appear to have recovered.

The article quotes the boy’s father poignantly saying about his son and rugby (which was mandatory at the boy’s school) “I had no concerns… My biggest fear was a broken neck or bones, not concussions.” As a Portland TBI lawyer with a special focus on injuries to children I hope everyone will read this story and draw the appropriate lessons from it. All of us who are associated with youth sports need to keep working to improve safety and gain a better understanding of the dangers inherent in every sport. As I noted last month, the United States Soccer Federation has recently introduced rule and procedure changes designed to make the game safer for younger players. It should not take a death or serious injury for everyone in the sports community to learn the painful lessons offered by one British family’s experience.


New York Times: How a Boy’s Concussion Death Changed British Sports

OHSU Information page on “Max’s Law”


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