Vermont is becoming safer for high school athletes, thanks to legislation advanced into law this year in part by Montpelier High School football coach John Murphy and his father, Sen. Richard Sears of Bennington.
Act 68, which was signed into law in June, expands the definition of sports that have a high risk of concussions (so-called collision sports); requires concussion training for sport officials; and requires that by July 2015 all athletic competitions must be attended by a medical professional who is certified in concussion management. This last requirement is dependent on the findings of the Concussion Task Force, which is made up of a mix of educational, health and athletic representatives, and has met three times so far. The first round of conclusions from the task force is due in December.
The sports that the law identifies as having a higher concussion risk include some that may appear obvious, as well as others that we don’t typically associate with repeated head trauma: football, lacrosse, wrestling and ice hockey.
The task force primarily has the job of finding ways for schools to absorb the significant financial impact of the rules. Posting a certified concussion specialist at every applicable sporting event may cost more than $10,000 per season, per sport. Initially the bill’s wording called for this requirement to have an effective date of 2014, which was later changed to allow the task force more time to adjust the requirements in the face of the financial impact that would have on small schools.
Beyond that effort, the law is already having a positive impact, first of all with increasing awareness and better training. When the law goes fully into effect, the outcome will be greater safety for our teenage athletes, whose brains are still in a developmental stage, and who are in general competing for the fun of it, rather than financial gain.
This is not so true in professional sports, in particular football and ice hockey.
The danger from repeated concussions is clear, particularly when viewed from a national level, where the National Football League has slowly begun to confront a health crisis caused by the violent nature of the sport.
Emblematic of this crisis is the story of former San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots linebacker Junior Seau, who killed himself in 2012, after struggling with wild behavior swings, irrationality, forgetfulness, insomnia and depression after a 20-year career in the National Football League. Tests on Seau’s brain after his death showed evidence of a disease related to traumatic brain injuries. His family has since sued the NFL, saying the league has consistently disavowed, covered up or denied the link between the repeated violent collisions on the field and the disease Seau suffered from. He is not the only one.
In November of last year, an Associated Press review found that more than 3,800 former NFL players had sued the league over head injuries. Among other things, the suits claim that the league has denied or covered up evidence that the repetitive, violent trauma sustained by football players results in serious brain injuries and lifelong health issues.
The NFL has consistently denied these claims, and in August settled a major portion of these lawsuits in federal court for $765 million — and promptly sealed the documents related to the lawsuit, including reams of testimony on the terrible effects of traumatic brain injuries players suffer in the course of their career.
The scientific validity of the NFL’s own research on brain injuries in its players has been called into question for nearly a decade, even as the league hyped and promoted the very violent and traumatic aspect of the sport that caused the trauma: big hits, physical play and a play-through-pain attitude. The August settlement is just a continuation of that disconnect. Also in August the NFL abruptly repudiated, and pressured the sports network ESPN to repudiate, a long-term investigation into concussions with the public television show “Frontline” — after a screening of the first cut of the show.
The motivation to minimize the publicity of long-term damage to players is simple: money. The NFL (and ESPN) can’t afford to have its Sunday devotees suddenly turn off because they find that the sport they love is responsible for the physical and mental destruction of many of its players.
We are lucky that at the state level, the motivation is far less about money and far more about making things work with the money we have, with the safety of our athletes in first place. That’s the way it should be.
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