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Amendments would exempt youth baseball, softball coaches from concussion training

Erie County adopted a law last month that requires coaches of youth contact sports to take concussion safety training so they can recognize when a child might have suffered a concussion and can take appropriate action.

Now, two amendments have been proposed to soften the law’s requirements, in light of the backlash over the “administrative nightmare” the law would unleash on volunteer-based organizations and questions about which sports are considered “contact” sports and which aren’t. The amendments are up for a vote on Thursday in the Erie County Legislature.

The latest amendment – the subject of a public hearing on Monday – would exempt youth baseball and softball from the concussion safety training requirements.

“To put little league softball in the same basket as tackle football – that’s not compatible,” said Legislator Peter Savage, D-Buffalo, who sponsors three teams in the Hertel North Park Youth Baseball League.

Another amendment, developed by the law’s original sponsors and also up for consideration, would make it clear the concussion law does not apply to visiting sports teams from outside of Erie County. It also would soften language requiring organizations to maintain records of compliance “to the best of their ability.” The amendment would allow leagues that already have some other established concussion safety program to be exempt from the county law.

Original concussion law sponsors Patrick Burke, D-Buffalo, and Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, offered the earlier amendment after hearing from officials from recreational youth leagues.

County Executive Mark Poloncarz also offered suggestions, though he signed the original draft of the law in July.

Burke said that with the revisions he and Lorigo proposed, it’s obvious that the concussion safety training law is not meant to be draconian, but rather requires youth league organizers to make a good-faith effort to raise concussion awareness among their coaches and supervisors. He also said coaches can meet the concussion training requirements with a free, 20-minute online course sponsored by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

“Anyone who is unwilling to do this shouldn’t be coaching in the first place,” Burke said.

John Hornung, vice president of the Hertel North Park Youth Baseball League, countered that the administrative hoops required of an organization that must recruit and manage more than 80 house league coaches each year represents a major burden and a potential liability to the organization. More than 1,000 players – ages 3 to 21 – compete on house teams for the organization.

He said baseball is not designed as a contact sport and should not fall into that category. Any sport could be prone to incidental contact that would lead to a concussion, he said.

Given coaching turnover and the need for last-minute fill-ins, he said, the law creates more problems than it solves and can make parents even more reluctant to step forward and coach.

“It seems like we’re going for headlines here instead of trying to solve a problem,” he said.

The Hertel North Park league does not currently provide information on youth concussions awareness.

Savage is sponsoring the youth baseball exemption with Legislator Kevin Hardwick, R-Tonawanda. Savage said he supports the intent of the mandatory concussion safety training law and believes other compromise measures could be developed to encourage leagues to enact better health safeguards.

“There’s a difference between mandating it and encouraging it,” said Savage, who has also heard objections from the West Side Junior Boys Baseball Club.

Burke, however, said the head of the South Buffalo Baseball Association, to which his children belong, has been a vocal supporter of the county’s concussion law.

He added that a child can suffer a concussion in youth baseball by being drilled with a pitch or colliding with another player in the outfield or at home plate. Just last season, he added, a child fell to the ground after being struck in the head by a wild pitch.

Exempting baseball from the county law opens the door to greater controversy over whether basketball, soccer and other sports should be covered by the law, Burke said. The latest version of the law covers sports “where head trauma can occur.”

The amendments also allow any organization to apply for an exemption from the Erie County health commissioner, who would make a final determination.

Public schools already require coaches to have concussion safety training. The county law imposes a $100 fine on youth recreational leagues that don’t require coaches to participate in the safety program.

Though the law presents inconveniences to coaches and league organizers, it could help reduce insurance premiums and is worth the trouble, Burke said. “It’s an extra step to make sure we prioritize kids’ health,” he said.

email: stan@buffnews.com

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