Preventing Head Injuries of School Athletes: Ensuring Safety without Destroying the Sport

Sport-related head injuries amongst school athletes is an issue that has gained increasing attention in the media in recent years, and justifiably so. Over the past decade, ER visits for concussions have doubled for youths between 8 and 13, and nearly tripled for teens between 14 and 19. This alarming data has led to much discussion over how the problem can be remedied and the trend reversed. More specifically, what can be done to ensure the safety of school athletes without threatening our nation’s youth sport programs?

Some argue that the heart of the problem lies in lack of regulation, at a local, state, and/or federal level. While nearly every state has enacted some form of legislation targeted at youth sport-related head injuries, many say that more stringent laws are needed.

Modeled after Washington’s 2009 ‘Zackery Lystedt Law,’ which was the first law in our nation to address youth sport concussions, initial state safety laws have focused primarily on developing guidelines, implementing policies, as well as creating educational programs and awareness on head injuries. Many states also require parental consent regarding head injury risks, immediate removal whenever a concussion is suspected, as well written clearance to return following a head injury. For example, Illinois recently expanded its student athlete safety laws in August of 2015 by creating the “Youth Sports Concussion Safety Act.”

Federal legislators have also been examining potential solutions, most recently in February of 2015, through the introduction of the “Supporting Athletes, Families, and Educators to Protect the Lives of Athletic Youth,” or “SAFE PLAY Act,” (S. 436/ H.R. 4829). If enacted, the Act would address inconsistencies between state and federal law, and assist schools in developing and implementing concussion safety plans through a multi-pronged approach of research, community education, and federal support.

While both state and federal reformative measures and legislative efforts in recent years are certainly a step in the right direction, many feel that more can be done. Suggestions include requiring medical professionals to be present at games or practice; mandating specialized training for coaches; and forcing students to undergo pre-season “baseline concussion testing” for mid-season or, more importantly, post-injury comparative purposes. Each of these proposed resolutions, though, come with a cost.

Schools already have limited resources when it comes to school athletic programs, and with states individually enacting more stringent regulations, even more resources have been and/or will be needed in order to comply with state laws. Some schools simply can’t meet the financial burdens necessary to implement even basic safety programs, let alone more aggressive approaches (i.e. hiring medical staff/ training coaches).

As a result of imposing harsher regulations, many schools could be forced to either terminate athletic programs, or require parents to share in the costs—both of which could significantly impact school sports as a whole. Opponents argue that more stringent regulatory measures would have a discriminatory effect upon cash-strapped schools and/or low-income families. Yet, proponents argue that ensuring the safety of student athletes is paramount to any other concern. Both sides make valid points—we need to reduce head injuries, but do so in a manner that does not destroy school sports or unfairly discriminate.

If your child is a school athlete and was injured or harmed during a game or practice, the Chicago Injury Lawyers of Zneimer & Zneimer P.C. invite you to contact us to discuss what legal remedies might be available to you.