State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-San Benito, voiced concern for the safety of high school athletes to the House Public Education Committee on Tuesday afternoon.
“I saw a few heartbreaking stories … on high school athletes that had stellar careers ahead of them,” said Lucio, who has filed two bills on athletic safety. “They were cleared by doctors after suffering their first concussion,” but after re-entering the game and sustaining secondary concussions, he said, the players ended up in long-term care.
One of Lucio's bills would require districts to retire football helmets after 16 years and recondition helmets that have been in use for 10 or more years. The bill would also require districts to keep records, which could be requested by parents, of the age and quality of the helmets.
Mark Cousins, interim athletic director of the University Interscholastic League, told legislators that school districts currently refer to manufacturers’ standards in deciding when to recondition helmets, but Lucio said that isn’t good enough. “Some [districts] take secondhand equipment from nearby school districts in order to meet their budgets,” Lucio said. And without keeping records, he said, districts may not be aware of the age of a particular helmet after several years.
Cousins told representatives the UIL doesn’t currently keep records of helmet resurfacing or reconditioning, but that he’d be “very surprised if there was a single district that wasn’t making sure” its helmets were safe. Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, asked, “If that’s the case … then passing this bill would have no fiscal consequences?” Cousins responded "it’s probably no" but admitted his position at the UIL required him to give that answer.
Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands and the committee's chairman, had his own take on Cousins’ answer: “Watch him nod his head.”
The second bill would require all high school athletes to take a baseline cognitive-linguistic test, in addition to a physical examination, which would allow medical professionals to objectively determine whether injured athletes have fully healed and returned to their normal cognitive capacity. “All this bill does is give you something to look at to say, this is where you were before, this is where you are now,” Lucio said.
Thomas Henley, president of Premier Athletics Safety System, which offers the test, said the procedure lasts 20 to 25 minutes and is entirely computerized, measuring reaction time, verbal memory, visual memory and other cognitive skills.
Cousins said the UIL has heard presentations from multiple companies that offer the test and believes “it could be a very important piece of the puzzle” in making a "return-to-play decision." Currently, the UIL does not require the testing.
Lucio said the test wouldn’t cost the state anything, but the UIL estimates high school athletes would have to spend $3 per assessment and $10 to $15 per post-injury exam.
Professional and collegiate athletic teams currently use impact testing to determine whether athletes who have sustained injuries can return to play. Tre' Newton, who formerly played football at the University of Texas, said the impact test the team required had “a huge impact on my decision making process to stop playing football.”
Newton sustained multiple concussions in high school but said that, after a few weeks, coaches would always let him back on the field. “Being an athlete, I always wanted to get back in there,” he said. “I felt like I was normal, but I wasn’t.” Newton said the test “doesn’t allow for the athlete to lie and try to get back in the game quicker than they should.”
Lucio said the bill intends to protect high school students who “are at an age where they won’t make an informed decision … they just want to play football or go back on the soccer field.” Some athletes can receive multiple concussions without sustaining serious brain damage — but that’s not the case for everyone. “This test is to raise a red flag” and show athletes whether they can meet the cognitive standards they previous set for themselves, Lucio said.