A groundbreaking study published last week by the New York Times has reverberated through the sports world. “A neuropathologist has examined the brains of 111 NFL players – and 110 were found to have CTE, the degenerative disease linked to repeated blows to the head,” the paper writes.
A few days later, National Public Radio reported that the NFL was ending a $30 million research partnership with the National Institutes of Health. Citing original reporting by ESPN, NPR said that after almost five years nearly half of the funds the league committed to the study of brain injuries remained unspent “following a bitter dispute in 2015 in which the NFL backed out of a major study that had been awarded to a researcher who had been critical of the League.”
It goes without saying that youth and high school sports are a far cry from the NFL, but with these two stories in the news it is worth revisiting the issue of youth sports and TBI for two reasons. First, anyone playing in the NFL only got there after years of youth, high school and college football. It has long been established that head injuries have a cumulative effect, so it is incumbent on all of us to ask what can be done to minimize these injuries long before young people get to the professional level. Second, and more importantly, whatever one may think of the NFL’s approach and attitude toward concussion issues, professional football players enter each game with the best equipment possible – including helmets built to standards far more exacting than anything a middle or high school student wears onto the field. That, in turn, requires us to look carefully at both the practices and the laws governing youth contact sports to see whether we are doing everything we can to prevent injuries to children.
The good news is that here in the Pacific Northwest we recognized the seriousness of this problem well before many other states. As an information page compiled by the Catholic health care company Providence Health & Services outlines “in 2009 Washington became the first state to enact a concussion law; Oregon followed suit in 2010. (These) require education or annual training for coaches or staff. They also require that any athlete suspected of sustaining a concussion must be removed from play or practice and must be cleared by a medical professional before returning to activity.” (see link below – this provides an excellent summary of the existing legal framework in both states)
In Oregon the key statute, revised most recently in 2015, is ORS 336.485 which lays out the responsibilities of both coaching staff and health care professionals with respect to concussions and youth (including high school) sports. The key section is 3(a) which forbids coaches from allowing young people to “participate in any athletic event or training on the same day” that the athlete either shows signs of a head injury “following an observed or suspected blow to the head or body” or receives an actual diagnosis of a concussion.
As a Portland attorney whose practice pays particular attention to injuries to children I have long supported this legislation, yet I also recognize that it is only as strong as we – parents, spectators, media and student athletes themselves – make it. Our state has been forward-thinking and pro-active in dealing with the problem of concussions in youth sports, but we must always ensure that coaches and school officials are enforcing the law, and that young people themselves are told from their earliest days in practice that ‘playing through the pain’ is good for neither them nor the team.
The NFL study cited by the New York Times, and NPR’s reporting concerning the league and the NIH are reminders of the powerful example the pros set for young people, for better or worse – and of the fact that severe adult TBI is often built on a foundation of smaller injuries in the athlete’s youth. Strict enforcement of ORS 336.485 and similar laws is the best way to break that cycle.
New York Times: 110 NFL Brains
NPR: NFL, NIH End Partnership for Concussion Research with $16m Unspent
Providence Health & Services: Oregon and Washington Concussion Laws
Oregon Department of Education: Safety of School Sports – Concussions