As public school athletic programs adjust to a new state law on how to respond when student athletes get concussions on the field, doctors and legislators say the health of the players will benefit.
Last year, the Legislature passed House Bill 2038, also known as Natasha’s Law, which required, among other things, training for coaches and athletic trainers on how to react when players sustain concussions. Coaches around the state had until Sept. 1 to complete two hours of training on how to identify concussion symptoms and to institute new rules about when an athlete could return to play.
Under the previous rules, a coach could put students back into a practice or a game if they were symptom-free for 15 minutes. Now, a physician has to give clearance before athletes in any sport can return to the field. Concussion symptoms include dizziness, blurred vision and headaches. Although Natasha’s Law applies only to public schools, some private schools and club leagues have also adopted it.
“We’ve hurt a kid’s brain and put him back in the game the same day, but when they have a knee injury, they’re out for three weeks,” said Dr. Jim Sterling, a sports medicine and concussion specialist who helped draft the initial version of the law. “We’ve been doing it a certain way for 30 years, but that doesn’t mean that’s the right way.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to 3.8 million sports-related concussions occur in the United States each year. People ages 15 to 19 sustain more concussions than those in most other age groups, and concussions are more damaging to adolescent brains than to adult brains.
Coaches and trainers say they like the new rules, even if they mean keeping a star athlete out of a game.
“The more cautious the better,” said Matt Gross, an athletic trainer at Pace High School in Brownsville. “Studies showing long-term issues are alarming. It’s for the health of the kids.”
State Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said there is no cost associated with the law — coaches and athletic trainers can undergo the training free. They can complete it online or with guidance from one of their district’s athletic trainers.
Deuell, who is also a physician, said coaches, parents and student athletes could misunderstand the symptoms and impact of concussions.
“We wanted to create guidelines for the people responsible for protecting the children — parents, coaches, trainers,” he said. “A lot of them have questions.”
For example, many do not realize that if a student continues to play with a concussion and receives a second head injury, there is a greater chance of severe brain damage or even death, said Spanky Stephens, the director of the Texas State Athletic Trainers Association, who put together the team that wrote the law.
“Natasha’s Law is just the beginning,” Stephens said, “and it has stimulated the need for more research."