Bill would punish coaches who don’t bench youth players with concussion symptoms

Connor Glowacki, Correspondent

ANNAPOLIS — Concussions in football have become a national conversation in recent years and especially in the wake of the release of the Golden Globe nominated film “Concussion” starring actor Will Smith.

Maryland Delegate Mark Chang, D-Anne Arundel, told the state House Ways and Means committee on Thursday about a bill he is sponsoring that would penalize coaches for failing to remove a player with suspected concussion symptoms at the youth level.

The bill would prohibit bringing back into a game prematurely a student who is suspected of having sustained a concussion.

“The goal of the bill is to have more accountability,” Chang said.

The bill states that a student removed from play may not return to the field until they have obtained written clearance from a licensed health care provider trained in the evaluation and management of concussions; and information on concussions must be provided to the individual and their parents or guardians. There also has to be a notice on the youth sports program registration form that includes directions on how to receive concussion information electronically.

The bill states that if a coach violates the law, a copy of charges will be sent to the coach in question and they may request a hearing within 10 days after receipt of the charges. The coach would then have the opportunity to be heard before a county board and to bring a witness to the hearing.

Each respective violation would bring a stricter degree of punishment. The first violation would have the coach suspended for the remainder of the current season; a second violation would signal a suspension for both the current and following season, and a third violation would result in a permanent suspension from coaching any athletic activity.

Coaches can be put in a situation where they are urged to keep certain players in games even when they have suffered head injuries, said Dr. Tim Romanoski, who specializes in primary care sports medicine and works at Centreville Family Medicine in Centreville, Maryland.

“Many times we have parents pushing coaches to push their star athletes back into the field due to scholarships,” Romanoski said.

Robert Graw Jr., CEO and medical director for HeadFirst, a sports-injury concussion care center, said that the punishments in the bill are appropriate, but only if coaches have training geared toward spotting head injuries.

“They (legislators) should write in the bill that a school board needs to have a rigorous educational policy,” Graw said Thursday in a phone interview.

The bill requires the state Department of Education to develop a program to provide awareness to coaches, school personnel, students and parents, in collaboration with other organizations.

Those organizations include the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, the Maryland Athletic Trainers Association, the Brain Injury Association of Maryland, and the state Department of Mental Health and Hygiene.

Chang said that the programs would educate coaches on the signs of concussions and that the training and educational programs would occur probably once a year.

Chang showed the members a video by the investigative series “E:60” that focused on former La Salle University football player Preston Plevretes, who in 2005 suffered a concussion in practice and returned to play two days later. A few weeks later, Plevretes again collided during a game and ended up suffering second-impact syndrome, a second injury on top of an original concussion that was unhealed. He now has severe, lingering symptoms, according to the “E:60” video.

Chang and Romanoski met opposition at the hearing from the Maryland Association of Counties.

Leslie Knapp Jr., an attorney for the Maryland Association of Counties, said he was concerned that by requiring an appeals process, the bill would inadvertently make it harder for a county to remove a bad coach.

MACo President Rick Anthony, who is also the director of Anne Arundel County Recreation and Parks department, said that his county has a simple policy for coaches and officials making decisions on removing football players with suspected head injuries.

“Our policy is: When in doubt, sit him out,” Anthony said.

Chang’s bill describes the term “concussion” as a traumatic injury to the brain that causes an immediate change in mental status or an alteration of consciousness resulting from either a fall, a violent blow to the head or body, or the shaking and spinning of the head or body. “Youth sports program” is identified as a program organized for recreational athletic competition or instruction for individuals who are younger than 19.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, is a degenerative brain disease that is found in people who have suffered repetitive brain trauma and was discovered by Dr. Bennet Omalu, the lead character in “Concussion,” according to the University of California Davis Health System website.

CTE has been found in numerous former NFL players after they had died. Former San Diego Chargers and Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide in 2012, and post-mortem studies from the National Institutes of Health found CTE in his brain, according to a 2013 statement from the National Institutes of Health.

Former New York Giants safety Tyler Sash died on Sept. 8 from an accidental overdose of pain medication. CTE was also later found in Sash, according to an article from The New York Times.

In April, U.S. District Court Judge Anita Brody approved a $900 million settlement between the NFL and more than 5,000 retired players. The monetary awards would go to retired players diagnosed with certain neurological conditions, according to USA Today.

“It’s a physical game, but we can make it safer for our kids,” Chang said.

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