LAHS athletics: SB 1 passed to shed light on seriousness of concussions

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By Mike Cote

While concussions, even minor ones, can be serious, it has been only recently that some sports programs and athletes have begun to take them seriously.

Starting this year, however, coaches, administrators and athletic trainers at the high school level are going to be required to take them more seriously.

Gov. Bill Richardson recently signed Senate Bill 1, which prescribes the protocols regarding brain injury resulting from school athletic activity.

SB 1 states that coaches may not allow any student-athlete to participate in athletics any sooner than one week following a concussion or other brain injury. It also calls on the New Mexico Activities Association to consult with a brain injury advisory council to train coaches and others to recognize the signs of possible brain injury.

While concussions and other head injuries can occur in any sport at any time, such injuries are most prevalent in football, which officially gets its preseason underway in about six weeks.

In Los Alamos, that adds one more thing on the already full plate of new Hilltopper football head coach Garret Williams.

Williams, who is busy preparing his offense and defense for the start of the 2010 season, said the passage of the legislation didn’t come as much of a surprise to him.

“This is kind of where things are going,” Williams said, talking about the new concussion guidelines. “Almost every state has been implementing some type of legislation so we have consistent standards to go by.”

Concussions are hardly new to the sport of football, but only recently have the professional and other higher levels of the game started to take the matter very seriously.

The issue of brain injury, which some — notably ESPN.com football columnist Gregg Easterbrock — have been attempting to create awareness of for some time came to the forefront during the 2009 NFL season.

A number of high-profile NFL players, among them Philadelphia Eagles running back Bryant Westbrook, were diagnosed with concussions. In Westbrook’s case, he refused to return to play until he was fully recovered.

Medically speaking, Westbrook’s decision was the correct one, but his decision to sit has been one of the few exceptions to a rule that most football players are taught almost as soon as they put on shoulder pads: play through pain.

Williams, who played football at both the collegiate and professional levels, said the good thing about the legislation is that decisions regarding any potential head injury are now taken out of his hands and put in the hands of those who have studied sports medicine.

He said that while he was fortunate not to have suffered serious injury during his playing days, many players that he played alongside went back out onto the field after taking a blow to the head when they probably should’ve sat out.

One of the things that makes it tough for athletes, however, is both the internal and external pressure they feel to continue after receiving a possible brain injury.

“You always have kids that try to play through things,” Williams said. “You always want kids to play to their limits, push themselves mentally and physically, but there’s a difference between being banged up and being injured.”

At Los Alamos High School, much of the responsibility to analyze and determine whether players have suffered head injury will go to veteran athletic trainer Mick Matuszak. Matuszak is considered one of the best school athletic trainers in the state by those whom he works for and around.

However, as Hilltopper girls soccer head coach Jiri Kubicek is quick to point out, Matuszak won’t be at every single athletic contest, particularly for road dates, and at some facilities his team will play at — including District 2AAAA rival Bernalillo — an athletic trainer may simply not be available.

“It could be a problem,” said Kubicek, who with 18 years under his belt one of the longest tenured coaches in the state in any sport. “The coaches have some kind of direction to recognize it (a brain injury). We already have the basics, but there’s going to be a lot of liability issues.”

Coaches, according to SB 1, can’t allow a student-athlete to participate in an activity on the same day that he or she “exhibits signs, symptoms or behaviors consistent with a brain injury after a coach, a school official or student athlete reports, observes or suspects” such an injury has occurred.

Coaches involved with soccer, a sport which has the potential for head-to-head or other jarring contact, something that Kubicek is personally very aware of, will need to pay as much heed to concussion and similar injuries as their football counterparts.

While Kubicek said he is all for ensuring the safety his and other players concerning potential concussions, he wondered what practical effect the law will actually have.

“This is really the effect: a coach can’t afford to put kids back in,” he said. “Everybody’s going to depend more on doctors. I don’t think trainers are going to take that kind of chance.”

While schools under the law have the responsibility to ensure each coach is trained to spot when a brain injury may have occurred, it is not made clear what legal consequences, civil or otherwise, schools and coaches may face if they are found not complying with SB 1.