The National Football League has given the National Institutes of Health $30 million for research on traumatic brain injury. There is much we don’t know about the causes, effects, prevention and treatment of sports-related brain injury – but that doesn’t mean that we should put all our eggs into the basket of biomedical research. Since Washington state pioneered its youth-sports brain injury prevention model-law in 2009, 40 states have passed laws setting out rules aimed at the problem (We’re tracking these on LawAtlas, the new PHLR policy surveillance portal). Most of these laws work by promoting identification of concussions, regulating the athlete’s return to play, and educating parents and coaches.
To put it another way, the nation, through a majority of its state legislatures, has embarked on a major initiative to reduce sports-related injuries. Tens of millions of people will be affected in some way – athletes, parents and coaches. Limited school-based resources will be consumed to comply with these laws. And, most importantly, people worried about the problem will, to some extent, rely on implementation of these laws to protect student athletes.
If this public health intervention were a drug or a new technique for changing behavior, its efficacy would be rigorously tested by government-funded research. Why should things be different because this possibly magic bullet happens to be based in the law? So far, the CDC has funded implementation case studies of youth sports concussion laws in Washington and Massachusetts. PHLR is funding a more in-depth study in Washington, with results expected next year.
The research agenda is well-stocked, with many questions still left unexplored. Questions include whether and how we are achieving law or policy compliance by coaches, parents and players? Which, if any, of the various approaches to allowing return to play (fixed time periods, various types of medical clearance) is associated with fewer subsequent injuries? Ditto with respect to whether a coach, trainer, doctor or other health care provider makes the determination. Ultimately, we want to know whether a major legal investment and subsequent compliance costs are reliable measures for preventing repeat concussions and reducing the toll of TBIs.