Bill targets concussions in school sports

Buddy Curry was a standout linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons in the 1980s, and he says it was a “badge of honor’’ to be the toughest player on the field.

He had several injuries in his football career, including concussions. He recalls coming off the field in a daze, unsure of which sideline was his team’s. Then, after being given a whiff of “smelling salts,’’ he would return to the game.

Curry, who now works in youth football, came to the state Capitol recently – along with current Falcons players – to testify on behalf on House Bill 673, which would require school teams to remove a student from a game who shows signs of having a concussion.

Once removed, the athlete would have to be cleared by a health care provider before returning to play. The proposal would also require coaches and other school system personnel to take a concussion education course.

The “Georgia Return to Play Act of 2012’’ was passed by the House Health and Human Services Committee on Wednesday.

The effort to standardize protocols for injured athletes occurs as attention on sports concussions has reached an unprecedented level among medical professionals, athletes, coaches and families.

The CDC estimates that up to 3.8 million concussions related to sports or recreation occur every year in the U.S. (Here’s a CDC information page about signs, symptoms and treatment of concussions.)

Former football players, hockey players and other athletes have reported having serious neurological issues in retirement. Roughly 300 former players are suing the NFL over concussion-related health problems, according to a Huffington Post article.

The NFL, meanwhile, has pursued a crackdown on helmet-to-helmet hits by players, and recently strengthened a league-wide sideline testing protocol for concussions.

Kenneth Edmonds, the league’s director of government relations and public policy, testified in favor of the Georgia legislation Feb. 8, saying it would prevent brain injuries and make youth sports safer.

The Georgia bill’s sponsor, Rep. Billy Mitchell (D-Stone Mountain), told Georgia Health News on Wednesday that his interest in the issue stems from concerns voiced by parents of a high school football player about the lack of a protocol for an injured athlete to return to play.

Mitchell said many groups have come forward to support the new protocols for dealing with youth players’ head injuries, including the Falcons and team owner Arthur Blank.

Too often over the years, Mitchell said, athletes have had concussions, and coaches have put them back into a game without evaluation.

More than 30 states have similar concussion laws for young athletes.

Public awareness of sports-related head injuries has surged in recent years. Among the incidents that have increased attention on brain injuries was a Kansas high school football player’s death after sustaining a head injury in a game.

Another galvanizing episode was the 2009 death of actress Natasha Richardson after she hit her head in a skiing accident. According to media reports, she did not receive immediate treatment for the injury.

The Georgia bill requires athletes, coaches and parents to be given an information sheet on the nature and risks of concussions and head injuries. That’s also a requirement for youth sports programs not associated with schools.

The legislation seeks to protect schools and health care providers from liability related to these proposed rules.

Current Falcons kicker Matt Bryant testified with Curry at the Feb. 8 hearing. “As a kid… I remember making a hit, and seeing the sky was a shade of yellow,’’ Bryant told the House panel.

Medical experts also testified in support the legislation at the early February hearing.

Steve Macciocchi, a concussions expert at Atlanta’s Shepherd Center, said that with repeated concussions, an athlete’s medical risks increase. “Doing something for our young athletes would be a very helpful and positive thing,’’ he said.

Dr. David Wright, a Grady Memorial Hospital physician and co-chair of the Georgia Concussion Coalition, said, “We are deeply concerned about the short- and long-term effects of concussions’’ on young athletes.

The bill, if passed and signed into law, would take effect next year.