Gazette opinion: Uniform policy will help protect athletes’ brains

2013-05-06T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: Uniform policy will help protect athletes’ brains The Billings Gazette
May 06, 2013 12:00 am

Next season, all Montana school districts must take steps to protect student athletes from traumatic brain injury.

Senate Bill 112, which Gov. Steve Bullock signed into law last month, requires schools to adopt policies that:

1. Inform parents and student athletes “about the risk of brain injury, including the effects of continuing to play after a concussion."

2. Ensure that each coach, athletic trainer and official participating in organized youth athletic activities annually completes a training program on recognizing concussions. That training must be based on current medical knowledge and guidelines.

3. Remove a youth athlete from play whenever he or she exhibits signs or behaviors associated with concussion. The athlete cannot be allowed to play again until a licensed health care professional “whose training includes the evaluation and management of concussions,” determines that it is safe for the youth to play again.

Testing players

Fortunately, some Montana school districts have already adopted procedures that fulfill some requirements of the new law. In Billings Public Schools, procedures for protecting athletes against repeated concussions have been in place for a few years.

Billings athletes in high-contact sports (football, basketball and soccer) take a computerized test to establish a baseline for the student’s reaction time and other indicators of normal brain activity. Billings Clinic and St. Vincent Healthcare have provided the testing. When an athlete has signs of a concussion, he or she is taken out of play and cannot return until a doctor gives the OK, the student is retested and has brain function at the baseline level.

“Our goal is to figure out a way to test all athletes,” Wahl said. About 3,500 Billings middle and high school students participated in sports this year.

3.9 million concussions

An estimated 3.9 million sports-related concussions happen annually in the United States. Concussions, especially repeat concussions that deprive the brain of time to heal, have been identified as a cause of long-term disability and death in both amateur and professional athletes.

“There’s a concussion epidemic in America,” Sen. Anders Blewett, D-Great Falls, said in introducing his bill to a Senate committee.

Montana joins 43 other states in setting a uniform standard for protecting student athletes. Our new law is called the Dylan Steigers Protection of Youth Athletes Act.

Dylan Steigers’ mother, Cyndy Steigers, testified to the Legislature about her son’s fatal head injury suffered May 8, 2010, during a football scrimmage at Eastern Oregon University. She told lawmakers that Dylan was a tough competitor who suffered several concussions playing sports, starting with a concussion in his freshman year playing high school football in Missoula.

Benjamin Phipps, a Billings physician who is director of sports medicine with Ortho Montana, told lawmakers that he has treated concussions sustained in a wide range of sports, even tennis and golf.

Long-term problems can happen with one concussion, but the risk goes up with repeated concussions, Phipps said.

He cautioned that well-trained professionals are needed to determine when a concussed athlete can start playing again.

“It’s easy to pull them out,” the doctor said. “It’s difficult to make the management decisions to put them back in two weeks, three weeks, eight weeks.”

Phipps coordinates concussion programs for more than 20 high schools in the Billings region. He has been working with Billings Public Schools to revise and complete its concussion procedures before the next school year starts, Wahl said.

Every Montana youth deserves the best protection against brain injury. We encourage all parents and schools to embrace this new law and to do their part to raise awareness about youth athlete concussions.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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