Two recent articles in the online health publication MedPage Today are the latest of a growing number of pieces questioning the effectiveness of “Heads Up” – the youth sports concussion awareness and prevention program sponsored by the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As the journal outlines, “Heads Up was launched in 2003 by CDC’s Injury Center and 26 partners, including the National Football League, YMCA and medical societies. Organizers produce and distribute resources, statistics and overviews of concussion laws and policies focused on high school sports, youth sports, parents, schools and health care providers.” The NFL has sponsored its own variation on the program, canned “Heads Up Football.” Despite their similar names, the NFL’s program is not formally connected to or endorsed by the CDC, according to MedPage Today. It’s use, however, is mandatory in youth football programs here in Oregon according to the journal (the only other state that requires coaches and youth football programs to use Heads Up Football is Vermont, though the program has gained widespread acceptance nationwide). Heads Up Football is designed to promote safe tackling and blocking techniques.
The question, however, is whether it works and a lot of that is a question of enforcement. The article notes that a study in Texas found that “among 185 school athletes who were examined for concussions at the hospital’s sports clinic in 2014, 38% had returned to play the same day they suffered the head injury – without being cleared by a medical professional and despite medical guidelines and state law that should have kept the students on the sidelines.”
Here in Oregon we are lucky to have some additional safeguards for young athletes. “Max’s Law,” which came into effect here in Oregon in 2010, requires that school coaches be trained both to recognize the signs of a possible concussion and that they pull players from practice or the game as soon as they suspect a concussion may have occurred. Players are not then allowed to return to the field until they have been examined by qualified professionals and given the all-clear. A subsequent piece of legislation known as “Jenna’s Law” extended these rules to all youth sports programs in Oregon in 2013.
But as the Texas study cited above indicates, the real question is how carefully these rules are observed and enforced. MedPage Today cites several studies from around the country that appear to indicate that enforcement is a serious problem. Put another way, it is one thing for the NFL to say it is trying to encourage a focus on safety and moving away from the ‘just play through the pain’ mentality – but everything a young athlete sees when watching an NFL game on Sunday or listening to it be analyzed on TV or the radio during the rest of the week sends very different signals.
As a Portland attorney with experience in cases involving sports injuries to children I believe that the extra safeguards our state offers through Max’s Law and Jenna’s Law are absolutely essential. With children getting involved in competitive sports at ever-younger ages it is important that the state set – and enforce – clear guidelines designed to protect child athletes from coaches more concerned with winning than with safety. At a time when even the professional levels of many sports are struggling with long term injuries and their consequences, it is more important than ever to make sure that life on the field is safe as well as fun.
MedPage Today: Heads Up: Has CDC Concussion Awareness Program Flopped?
MedPage Today: CDC’s Heads Up vs. Heads Up Football
University of Oregon Center on Brain Injury Research & Training: Oregon Concussion Laws FAQ