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Young athletes deserve protection

Editorial

Look at the kids out on the playing fields these days and the size, strength and speed is astounding.

There was a time when a high school player who was over 6 feet tall and who weighed more than 200 pounds was the biggest guy on the gridiron. Not so these days. A 6-foot-tall quarterback can barely see downfield to throw with the huge linemen in front of him. And these large bodies are moving at speeds that were once reserved for receivers.

The result is higher-energy impacts that were once rare have become commonplace.

Also more common is something you seldom heard mentioned a few years ago — concussions.

We’ve seen what repeated concussions can do to adult athletes. Legendary boxer Muhammad Ali is a prime example of a former athlete who’s suffered in his retirement years from medical problems caused by the jolts his head received during boxing matches.

In the past several tears, a large number of former NFL players — including Junior Seau and Ray Easterling, who both committed suicide — have been diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) after their deaths, a condition caused by concussions. In fact, more than 4,000 former NFL players are attempting to sue the league over the issue, which they say the NFL has made worse through glorifying the high-impact hits and by not addressing the situation properly. Problems many of these players face include Alzheimer’s, depression and dementia, and others in the group are concerned they will one day develop similar problems.

But concussions are not restricted to adults. The Georgia Governor’s Office noted Tuesday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that each year emergency medical centers treat an average of 173,285 sports- and recreation-related traumatic brain injuries, including concussions.

Who are those 173,285 patients? They’re all 19 years old or younger.

That’s why we were happy to see Gov. Nathan Deal sign into law House Bill 284 — the Return to Play Act of 2013 — at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite on Tuesday. The act creates return-to-play policies for young athletes who suffer concussions during a game and includes provisions to educate the public on the risks of concussions.

“Even the mildest bump or blow to the head can lead to a concussion,” Deal said. “I am proud to sign this bill that serves to protect Georgia’s young athletes from sustaining very serious injuries if the condition goes unnoticed or untreated. A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury that should never be overlooked and we all need to know the symptoms to look for.”

Under the law, local boards of education, governing bodies of nonpublic schools and governing bodies of state charter schools are required to implement a concussion policy with these components:

  • Providing a concussion form to parents and guardians;
  • Removing youth athletes from an activity if they exhibit signs or symptoms of a concussion;
  • Releasing a youth athlete who has been determined to have sustained a concussion to return to play only after the athlete has been cleared for return by a medical provider.

Public recreation leagues are also required under the law to provide a concussion form to parents and guardians. They are encouraged to apply the other components to their programs.

As youths get bigger, stronger and faster, the dangers of concussions also will grow, barring some technological advancement in safety equipment. The onus is on the adults — the coaches, parents and others — to ensure that sports and activities are conducted as safely as possible, and that the young athletes’ health is always the first consideration. This law — a collaboration between the NFL, the Atlanta Falcons, Children’s Healthcare and Georgia lawmakers — is a needed step in helping ensure that.