Heads up, parents.
A proposed state law would require all young athletes — everyone from flag football players and T-ballers to soccer players and gymnasts — to get clearance from a doctor or other medical expert before returning to competition if they show signs of concussion.
The plan, backed by Akron Children’s Hospital and other medical groups and hospitals across Ohio, also would require youth coaches and referees to complete free basic online training about head injuries.
In addition, the Ohio Department of Health would develop a fact sheet about the signs and symptoms of concussions to distribute to parents.
“The brain is the last organ system in the body to develop,” said Dr. Joseph Congeni, director of the Sports Medicine Center at Children’s. “In these younger kids, it’s even more important.”
Congeni is among the supporters scheduled to testify before an Ohio Senate subcommittee this week in support of the concussion legislation, House Bill 143.
The bill already passed the Ohio House, with some changes in the Senate, said Charlie Solley, director of government relations and external affairs for Children’s Hospital. The goal is to have the new rules approved before year’s end.
Ohio is one of only nine states without back-to-play rules to protect youth athletes from concussions.
Awareness about concussion prevention and proper treatment has increased at all levels of sports in recent years as more becomes known about risks and long-term effects. Even after headaches subside, silent symptoms can linger that put an athlete at risk for serious — even fatal — consequences from a second concussion.
The proposal for youth sports in Ohio closely mirrors rules already enacted in 2010 by the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA).
Under those standards, student athletes can’t return to play after a suspected concussion without a release from a doctor or athletic trainer.
Last school year, 336 athletes statewide were removed by officials from sporting events after showing signs of concussions, according to the OHSAA. Wrestling had the most removals for potential concussions (111), followed by football (102).
The numbers don’t include concussions sustained during practices.
The existing rules only apply to about 40 percent of school-age athletes because they don’t cover youth sports and activities not sanctioned by the OHSAA, such as lacrosse, Congeni said.
Athletes 14 or younger with developing brains are at even greater risk, in part because they don’t have the same muscle strength as older athletes, Congeni said.
Kiera Shanklin, a mother of four from Massillon, supports the proposal, especially after seeing the impact of head injuries in her own family.
Her oldest son, Zachery, 15, suffered a concussion during football practice last month that left him sidelined for the rest of the Tigers’ season.
Zachery tried to return to practice the following day. The coaches took his pads away, saying he couldn’t come back unless cleared by a doctor.
Even a month later, he still suffered balance problems.
Shanklin said the same protections that kept Zachery out of the game should apply to her younger son, Justin, 8, who plays youth football.
“If they’re diagnosed with a concussion, they should have to sit out, just like the high school students,” she said.
Until changes were made to add liability protection for coaches and referees, the Ohio Alliance of YMCAs had concerns about the plan, Executive Director Beth Tsvetkoff said.
Most volunteer coaches and referees for the more than 155 YMCAs statewide have no medical training, she said. “The NFL doctors often have difficulty seeing the signs and symptoms of concussions.”
The group now supports the proposal, she said. Educating coaches with free 30-minute online training “is the right step to take in order to protect the kids involved with youth sports.”
The proposal doesn’t include penalties or methods for enforcing the rules, Children’s Solley said. However, coaches and refs could open themselves to legal troubles if they fail to follow the rules and an athlete has problems.
Cheryl Powell can be reached at 330-996-3902 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Powell on Twitter at twitter.com/abjcherylpowell.