State Concussion Legislation: Variable Implementation

By Christine Baugh

The most recent issue of the Journal of Law Medicine and Ethics (generously made available for free by the American Society of Law Medicine and Ethics) included several articles examining state concussion laws. One theme that arose across the articles is that although concussion-related legislation is on the books in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, the extent to which it is creating an improvement in youth and adolescent athlete health outcomes is unclear.

In their article titled “State experiences implementing youth sports concussion laws: challenges, successes, and lessons for evaluating impact” Kerri McGowan Lowrey and Stephanie Morain interviewed stakeholders (e.g., officials at state departments of public health, state athletic associations) at a majority of states with concussion laws in order to understand how the laws had been implemented. Although previous research in the area (see, for example: Hosea Harvey’s piece in the American Journal of Public Health) presented concussion legislation as relatively homogenous, McGowan Lowrey and Morain’s approach provided critical insight. They found that while the state laws are relatively uniform in their construction, there is substantial variation in their implementation. In particular, McGowan Lowrey and Morain reported variation in compliance with the statutes, variation in how much stakeholders were included during formative stages in the legislation’s composition, and variation in what constituted concussion education.

In another article in the issue, my colleagues Emily Kroshus, Alexandra Bourlas, Kaitlyn Perry, and I specifically examined the concussion education and acknowledgement provisions of state concussion laws. This investigation was conducted in two parts: first we examined what the statute mandated and then we examined what the high school athletic association and/or department of education in that state actually provided for education. Similar to McGowan Lowrey and Morain, we found that implementation did not always match statute. In some promising cases the education provided exceeded the information minimally required by statute. In other situations, the concussion information was provided in such a way that it was required to be returned with a parent signature. In cases like this, compliance with one part of the statute (mandating acknowledgement of receipt of information) may have been compromising another (providing concussion education). Although the education and acknowledgement tenets were relatively similar across states, more heterogeneity was found in the implementation of these aspects of the statutes.

In general, these two studies suggest that the approach for examining statute, and particularly its efficacy, needs to be designed to address implementation stage information. Strict examination of the statutory language obscures critical implementation-level differences. These concussion-related statutes, enacted now in every state, are ostensibly supposed to reduce risk and improve athlete health outcomes. The extent to which they are reliably accomplishing this goal is unclear. What is clear is that implementation of the laws, and enforcement in cases where schools do not abide by statute, are necessary precursors to consistent efficacy. Although it is important that all states have taken steps toward protecting the health and safety of youth and adolescent athletes, approving a statute is not the final step toward this aim. Further research is needed to understand what health effects the current laws are having and critically where improvements can be made in this important area of public health law.

[This post reflects my own views only.  It does not necessarily represent the views of the Petrie-Flom Center or the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University.]

Are we appropriately framing the risks of brain trauma in contact sports?

By Christine Baugh

The recent concussion and sport special issue of the Journal of Law Medicine and Ethics (generously made available free by the American Society of Law Medicine and Ethics: HERE), edited by new Bill of Health contributor David Orentlichter,  includes a number of important works discussing legal and ethical issues related to mild traumatic brain injury sustained through sport. One of the most thought provoking articles in the issue is a piece by Kathleen Bachynski and Daniel Goldberg titled Youth Sports & Public Health: Framing Risks of Mild Traumatic Brain Injury in American Football and Ice Hockey. This piece delves into the important issues of cultural and normative influences on the framing (and thus public understanding) of the risk of brain injury in sport. At the heart of the paper is the assertion that, “The framing of risk is not a neutral, apolitical enterprise,” and that in the United States and Canada highly influential institutional actors such as football and ice hockey leagues have played a formative role in the cultural valuation of the risks inherent in these activities.

Bachynski and Goldberg provide a variety of examples where the overarching questions such as “Are contact sports too risky?” or “What is an appropriate level of risk?” are deferred for easier alternatives. Addressing more focal issues are: State concussion laws which mandate secondary prevention measures, advancement in protective equipment which promises to mitigate risk of injury, rule changes made by sports leagues which aim to make inherently dangerous activities somewhat less dangerous. Rather than addressing the broader risk questions, the implicit assumption in these more focused efforts is that risks are acceptable as long as they are managed. Through what Bachynski and Goldberg assert are concerted efforts on behalf of major stakeholders (e.g., major sports leagues), this has been the predominant frame for risk assessment in contact sports.

Unfortunately, this method of framing risks is not without consequences. Bachynski and Goldberg argue that this framing may alter our understanding of the scope of the problem as well as the most appropriate interventions or solutions. This frame may also inappropriately downplay the need to address the broader moral, social, and political questions that arise from concussions in contact sports. For example, the authors pose the following question, “At what age can players consent to risks of head trauma and associated elevated risks of chronic degenerative neurological disease?”

Answering this question could require a complex weighing of the scientific evidence of the long-term risk of neurodegeneration and balancing it against a variety of factors such as the paternalistic desire to control the population’s ability to partake in self-injurious behavior and the need to protect an individual’s autonomy. (We do, after all, regularly let individuals partake in other dangerous activities—e.g., downhill skiing or driving a car.) We would need to think about questions such as: Should we treat the risk of brain injury differently than bodily injury? Should the risk of delayed or chronic injury be weighed differently given humans’ known difficulty in assessing risk in the distant future? What does scientific evidence have to say about the nature of the risk across age ranges? However, under the current framing these questions are not the ones being addressed. Bachynski and Goldberg’s article elucidates the first step toward addressing concussions from sport: appropriately framing the problem.

[This post reflects my own views only.  It does not necessarily represent the views of the Petrie-Flom Center or the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University.]

Asking the Right Question about Football

By David Orentlicher
[Cross-posted at HealthLawProf Blog and orentlicher.tumblr.com.]

In his New York Times op-ed today, former Denver tight end Nate Jackson explains why the NFL should prefer that its players use marijuana to medicate their pain rather than to rely on prescription drugs that can have serious side effects and promote dangerous addictions. Jackson explains quite effectively why he needed marijuana during his six-year career:

I broke my tibia, dislocated my shoulder, separated both shoulders, tore my groin off the bone once and my hamstring off the bone twice, broke fingers and ribs, tore my medial collateral ligament, suffered brain trauma, etc. Most players have similar medical charts. And every one of them needs the medicine.

But to ask whether players should use marijuana or legal drugs to treat their pain is to ask the wrong question. As I write in a forthcoming symposium on concussion in sports in the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, Continue reading

Parental Consent for Youth Contact Sports Participation

As we enter into the fall sports season, it’s unlikely that a week will go by where we don’t hear the current buzzword in sports community: concussion. Whether in reference to an acute player injury, an untimely death, new or ongoing litigation, or rule changes in sport, the athletic community and the public are increasingly aware of the impacts of these brain injuries. Although much of the media attention is directed toward college and professional athletes, youth and high school athletes significantly outnumber their older counterparts and it is thought that they take longer to recover from these injuries.

A recent publication by Mannings and colleagues surveyed 369 parents of 5-15 year old full-contact football players in order to assess the parents’ understanding of concussion (1). Although the study does have limitations, its finding could have important implications. The parents surveyed were often missing critical information about concussions. For example, less than half of parents correctly identified that concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury. Additionally, none of the parents surveyed correctly identified all of the symptoms of concussion queried in the study. Although it is mandated by statute in the majority of states (2) that parents and/or athletes are provided with information about concussions prior to sports participation, the extent to which the information provided (normally in the form of an information sheet) is read, understood, or retained is not well understood.

Sports participation is associated with a myriad of positive physical, psychological, and social outcomes. However, it also comes with the risk of injury, including concussion. For youth and adolescents, parents play a critical role. Most often, children and adolescents rely on parental consent to participate in sports. Given parents’ role as decision-makers, and the finding of Mannings and colleagues, an important ethical issue that needs to be addressed is what level of knowledge should be required for parents to provide informed consent for their child to participate in inherently risky activities such as contact sports?

[This post reflects my own views only.  It does not necessarily represent the views of the Petrie-Flom Center or the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University.]

Ohio Joins In

By Hosea H. Harvey, JD, PhD

Last week, Ohio joined the vast majority of states that have enacted laws designed to reduce long-term health consequences for youth athletes who suffer concussions (technically, traumatic brain injuries or TBIs) in organized youth sports activities.  Based on my research for an upcoming article “Reducing Traumatic Brain Injuries in Youth Sports” (forthcoming, American Journal of Public Health), it appears that Ohio has followed the lead of most other states by adhering to a common framework and (at the same time) has substantially innovated with respect to certain key provisions of such laws.

Most youth sports TBI laws are organized around three broad risk-reduction methods: 1) educating parents, youth athletes, and/or coaches, 2) requiring the removal of youth athletes suspected of having concussions, and 3) providing criteria that a youth athlete must meet prior to returning to athletic competition. Each of these methods are, in part, derived from legislation crafted after a tragic football injury to Zachary Lystedt in Washington, leading the state to pass the nation’s first such law in April 2009. (You can read the law on LawAtlas™)  Since then, adherence to the “Lystedt framework” has been a common feature of state-level youth sports TBI laws. In this fast-paced legislative environment, unprecedented in scope, Ohio is relatively late to the game. Yet, by moving later, Ohio’s deliberate speed has resulted in legislation that relies on the Lystedt framework but also contains innovations of uncertain efficacy.

Continue reading