ATHENS, Ga. — There’s no hurry in this corner of Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conference territory to safeguard our children from sports-related concussions.
Despite a more than two-year blitz led by the NFL to get states to pass basic concussion care mandates, Georgia and South Carolina have felt no sense of urgency to join the 40 other states in signing bills into law.
South Carolina’s version of the bill has stagnated in committee, with legislators seemingly satisfied to let the high school league and schools to establish their own “guidelines.”
Georgia was on the brink of passing a bipartisan bill last spring, but the house speaker elected not to bring it up for vote on the last day to move it to the Senate in March because he was upset with the way the bill’s co-sponsor voted that day on the budget.
Good thing to know politics is more important than our children.
“It’s a little embarrassing to be from a state that always seems to be a little behind,” said Dr. David Wright, the co-chairman of the Georgia Concussion Coalition that seeks a new sponsor to start the legislative process again in January.
Politicians weren’t always so lead-footed in responding to the health concerns of our young athletes.
In 1897, the Georgia legislature passed a bill to ban football just two days after Bulldog football player Von Gammon, of Rome, Ga., died after suffering a severe concussion being tackled in game against Virginia in Atlanta. The proposed ban passed the house by a 91-3 vote, sailed through the senate with virtually no opposition and was sent to Gov. William Yates Atkinson to sign into law.
The states three football programs – Georgia, Georgia Tech and Mercer – all voluntarily disbanded and the Atlanta Journal ran a headline calling it the “Death Knell of Football.”
But Rosalind Burns Gammon, the mother of the player who died, wrote the governor asking him not to sign the bill.
“Grant me the right to request that my boy’s death should not be used to defeat the most cherished object of his life,” she wrote.
Gov. Atkinson vetoed the bill and Gammon’s mother became known as the woman who saved football. A gold plaque presented by the Virginia team in 1921 honoring Gammon and his mother still hangs in Georgia’s Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall.
“Some people think that football is at a crossroads today,” said Ron Courson, the director of sports medicine at UGA. “But if you look at history, this is really not new.”
Football had to be “saved” again by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905, a year when 18 football deaths inspired national pleas for the sport’s abolishment. Roosevelt summoned Walter Camp and coaches at Harvard, Princeton and Yale to the White House and encouraged them to reform the game to make it safer.
From that meeting, the NCAA was formed as were rules barring mass rugby-style formations and gang tackling and establishing the forward pass, a neutral zone at the line of scrimmage and 10 yards for a first down.
More than a century later, however, football is still fighting an uphill battle to make it safer for participants as research mounts showing the grave long-term repercussions of repeated concussions.
The NFL and NCAA are once again tweaking the rulebook to limit the kind of violent hits that are most prone to causing concussions.
“The most injurious play in football was the kickoff return,” said Courson of new rules that pushed the kicking tee forward five yards, moved touchbacks to the 25 and limit pre-kick run-ups to only five yards. “You have more touchbacks and slow down the velocity of the play.”
But the most positive steps have developed since the NCAA mandated rigid concussion protocol standards in 2010 for all sports. Georgia has been following similar protocol for nearly a decade – establishing baseline cognitive standards, removing injured athletes from the field immediately and requiring testing and medical clearance before resuming participation – and it has seen a difference in the culture of players adhering to the old football adage of “playing hurt.”
“We try to educate the student-athletes the first of the year with every sport,” said Courson. “We try to reinforce that the quicker we can identify concussions and stop them, the faster they can get back out there. ... The biggest thing since we’ve implemented the concussion protocol and the education is the athletes are more responsible about telling us.”
Courson said last football season that nine players suffered concussions – five of them identified on the practice field or games and four that were self-reported by players.
“Concern was athletes would not be reliable witnesses to their own health, “ said Dr. Kim Walpert, a neurosurgeon at Athens Regional. “That’s just not proving to be true. If we educate the athletes and all understand that the goal is to get them back in safely, they buy in. They are as integral a part of our concussion management team as any physician or trainer.”
Football isn’t the only sport where concussions are a major concern – soccer, equestrian and cheerleading are up there as well – but it’s the most visible. Turning around a battleship of a century-old culture is not easy. And with concussion damage worse in younger adolescents (and women), Walpert says it’s critical to establish protocols of education and care sooner – starting at the roots in youth leagues and high schools.
“The real key is before these kids ever get to college,” said Walpert. “They learn muscle memory and techniques early.”
The “Georgia Return to Play Act of 2012’’ that failed to reach a vote was based on three basic tenets – educate every athlete, coach and parent; remove concussed players from play immediately; require medical clearance from a qualified health care provider before returning to play.
“We’ll be re-proposing it in January,” said Mike Ferrara, the director of Georgia’s Athletic Training Curriculum. Ferrara said that only 43 percent of high schools in the country have access to certified medical trainers.
“I think it’s unconscionable that our states don’t fund trainers in high schools that play football,” said Walpert. “Yes, that’s a huge battle.”
Pardon the pun, but passing a law to protect our children is a “no-brainer.” Please encourage your state representatives to do it already.