Concussion-related health issues associated with athletics, particularly the risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) among participants in sports involving jarring collisions, have continued to capture national headlines and broad consumer interest. NFL players Malcolm Jenkins, Charles Johnson and Cameron Jordon even collaborated on a PSA about the dangers of “playing through the pain.” Consequently, professional sport leagues and the majority of colleges and universities have now implemented strong concussion protocols, such as baseline testing, having an athletic trainer present at all sporting events – including practices – and set rules on return to play. However, there remains more disparity at the high school and grade school level, specifically with less regulated, non-scholastic sport programs.
According to a study by the National Academy of Sciences, high school football players suffer 11.2 concussions per every 10,000 practices and games, which is nearly double the concussion rate among college players. High school leagues, which are often responsible for determining how concussions are treated, are most likely to be liable for their players’ injuries. Therefore, high school sports programs are beginning to enact proactive measures and procedures, similar to those at the collegiate and professional levels, to ensure they’ve taken the proper precautions to protect their athletes and their balance sheets.
Concussion Risk Management
In an effort to make the decision to put a player back in the game less subjective, baseline testing for high school athletes continues to gain popularity. According to the CDC, baseline testing is defined as “a pre-season exam conducted by a trained health care professional.” These results can then be compared to a similar exam later in the season, if a player suffers a head injury. Interestingly, 62 high schools across Michigan are participating in a baseline testing program modeled after programs implemented at the professional level. If successful, Michigan’s program could be one of the first to seriously influence concussion laws and solidify a standard for which high school programs must be held.
In addition to baseline testing, many states have implemented strict “return to play” laws, which aim to decrease CTE-related injuries by requiring concussion education and defined medical procedures before an athlete can continue participating in a sporting activity. Although the first return to play law was passed in 2009 in Washington, various forms of the law have been implemented in scholastic programs throughout all 50 states between 2009 and 2014.
Until recently, most legislation – such as return to play laws – was specifically geared towards school-sponsored programs, rather than all youth organizations. However, considering the long-term effects of head trauma, states are beginning to hold non-scholastic programs to the same high standards as high school programs. For example, California recently amended their return to play laws to apply to all youth organizations, defined as any “organization, business, nonprofit entity, or a local governmental agency that sponsors or conducts amateur sports competitions, training, camps, or clubs…” These additional obligations aim to set a new standard for how head injuries are treated across the board, and will undoubtedly affect how organizations operate moving forward.
The saying has rung true often before, “As California goes, so goes the nation.”
In California, all youth athletic programs will now be required to obtain a signed head injury information sheet, perform annual concussion or head injury education, adhere to strict medical guidelines, as well as ensure the immediate notification of a guardian in the event of an injury. Traditionally, to prevent against possible CTE-related litigation, many non-scholastic programs only required a simple guardian-signed waiver. Because a signed waiver will no longer serve as adequate defense against CTE-related claims, organizations will need to immediately modify current policies to adhere to these new obligations or face the risk of increased liability in a CTE claim.
As CTE-related litigation typically pursues damages for physical injuries, pain and suffering, along with medical bills, the cost of defending these claims can be significant. And as concussion law continues to evolve across the U.S., policies will need to be updated to adhere to changes in legislation. Speaking with an insurance broker can ensure your current policies are providing adequate coverage, and help prepare you for updates down the line. Whether they’re playing professionally, at the collegiate level or on a local high school or non-scholastic team, keeping your athletes safe and healthy should be top priority.
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