Youth safety suffers a blow as bill derailed

More than 40 years ago, in the middle of a high school football game, my helmet slammed into the knee of a running back.

After that hit, my brain seemed fogged, as though it were on half-power. But I kept playing.

As the game continued, I never considered sitting out any plays. My high school team didn’t have a doctor or trainer on the sidelines, and even if it had, I don’t know whether I would have reported the injury. My legs and arms still worked fine. I kept on taking the field with the defensive unit and making tackles.

After the game, I told a coach that I felt funny, and he eventually realized I had a concussion. But all he suggested was that I stay up extra late that night. It was a common belief then that simply keeping awake would reduce the danger after a blow to the head.

I didn’t actually see a doctor about the problem until the following week.

My memories of that old injury were resurrected during the recent debate over Georgia House Bill 673, which would require school teams to remove a player who shows signs of having suffered 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.

Current and former Atlanta Falcons players testified on behalf of the bipartisan legislation. The lead sponsor, Rep. Billy Mitchell (D-Stone Mountain), said during Crossover Day that he was confident the bill would pass the House.

But it never made it to a vote, despite being on the House calendar for debate, as Aaron Gould Sheinin and Christopher Quinn point out in a Thursday AJC article.

The effort to standardize protocols for injured athletes comes 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.)

(Traumatic brain injury has also been cited as a possible factor in the case of a U.S. Army sergeant who allegedly massacred Afghan civilians recently.)

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.

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

My own football concussion was on the mild side. I suffered another concussion, about 20 years ago, when a teenager’s vehicle crossed a double-yellow line and rammed my car. But again, it wasn’t a serious injury.

Mitchell recently told Georgia Health News 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.

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 concussion laws for young athletes, and medical experts on concussions testified in favor of the Georgia bill. And while a Democrat was a lead sponsor, Republicans such as Sharon Cooper, who chairs the House Health and Human Services Committee, also co-sponsored it. The fact that it didn’t succeed raises troubling questions.

The AJC article said there were last-minute changes to the legislation, including paring its scope down to just public school teams. The article also cited speculation that it may have been sidetracked due to mere political reasons.

Lawmakers on Wednesday said the bill will be assigned to a study committee, and will be considered next year. Meanwhile, media attention may increase public awareness of brain injuries and concussions.

I certainly don’t regret playing football, and still enjoy watching it.

But even with better helmets, the game is played with much more speed now. Players are bigger and stronger. So concussions are always a threat, and there’s always danger that a player can return too quickly to a game.

Hopefully, next year, the Georgia Legislature will get off the sidelines and approve a bill to protect our young athletes.