House OKs concussion measure for young athletes

Aimed at preventing serious brain injury; suspensions possible


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HARRISBURG -- After debating Marcellus Shale from morning to night, the state House on Tuesday night passed the Safety in Youth Sports Act aimed at trying to prevent serious brain trauma and better monitor concussions in Pennsylvania athletes in middle and high schools.

Following nearly a half-hour of debate on such points as civil liability and the act's language defining "a licensed or certified health-care practitioner," state representatives approved the measure by a 169-29 vote.

In order to become law, the act also known as House Bill 2728 must next pass the Senate --where it could be forwarded as early as next week -- and then receive the governor's signature.

The act, a year in the making by Rep. Tim Briggs, D-Montgomery County, includes provisions for concussion-trained medical professionals to release in writing any injured athlete to return to participation in their sport.

In particular, with encouragement from specialists at UPMC Sports Medicine, among other hospital systems around the state, language was added to include neuropsychologists, medical doctors, doctors of osteopathy and certified athletic trainers as a "practitioner whose scope of practice includes the management and evaluation of concussions." Such a provision attempts to ensure that athletes, as has happened in the past, don't seek a return-to-play approval from, say, a podiatrist or a gynecologist.

"As we've all read over the last months and years, [with] the significance of brain injuries and concussion it's very important to educate, especially young students, [about] the risks and symptoms of concussions," Mr. Briggs told the House after the bill passed. "We need to do everything we can to change the mentality of shaking off an injury like a brain injury."

The act:

• Calls for the state Departments of Health and Education to develop educational guidelines about the incidence of such maladies in school sports, including risks "associated with continuing to play or practice after a concussion or head injury," and post them on their websites. Each student and parent/guardian must sign, every year of that athlete's participation, a subsequent form attesting to their education about the risks.

• Suggests that schools -- and they want to include all Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association members, public and private -- hold informational meetings before each season "for all ages of competitors" regarding brain injuries, concussion management and the neurocognitive testing that can aid in evaluation, management and recovery. "In addition to students, parents, coaches and other school officials, [the] informational meetings may include physicians, neuropsychologists, athletic trainers and physical therapists."

• Decrees that each head coach must take an online course -- as already outlined in a rule new this year by the National Federation of High School Associations and adopted by the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association -- and be certified in a concussion management training course once every three years. The coach isn't allowed to work with his team until he or she passes such certification by a provider approved by the Department of Health.

• Provides for return-to-play and removal-of-play guidelines that, to a point, already are in place with the aforementioned NFHSA and emphasized by the PIAA.

However, the act takes it one step further: It penalizes a coach who doesn't abide.

If a player isn't removed by a coach despite showing signs or symptoms upon being assessed by proper medical personnel as outlined, or if the player is returned to participation by a coach without receiving written clearance, it falls on the school district to suspend that coach.

The first offense, under this act, merits a suspension for the rest of that season. A second violation means a suspension for the rest of that season and the one following. A third strike, and the coach is out -- permanently banned "from coaching any athletic activity."

The act as written covers all school-affiliated sports, including non-competitive cheerleading and club sports such as high school hockey and lacrosse.

People in charge of athletic activities such as amateur youth leagues "not specifically addressed by this act are encouraged to follow the guidance set forth in this act," Mr. Briggs and fellow sponsors wrote.

Some opponents to the bill feared that coaches or volunteers might face liability suits after trying to help a player suffering from a head injury, thus causing such people to avoid involvement altogether.

"I am concerned that attorneys, in some circumstances where a player has received a head trauma, may blame volunteers," said Rep. Paul Clymer, R-Bucks, who termed his reservations "major considerations."

Added Rep. Scott Perry, R-York: "While I laud the intentions, I view this as an unfunded mandate for schools, which will potentially hold taxpayers liable for poor decisions made on the field of play. It will discourage coaches and trainers" from getting involved with injured players.

Only a half-dozen states -- including Washington, Massachusetts and Oklahoma -- have similar laws on their books, with a score more mulling them over.

Mr. Briggs forwarded mostly the same measure a week ago as part of the state Public School Code, but amendments were tacked onto the bill and he decided to re-enter it separately as a free-standing, independent act.

The act was vetted and altered slightly -- including the liability language -- in a 185-13 House vote Monday before its third and final consideration Tuesday night.


Chuck Finder: cfinder@post-gazette.com ; Harrisburg Bureau Chief Tom Barnes: tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-2141.


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