The National Football League is helping craft legislation in states around the country that would protect young athletes from the long-term effects of concussions.
State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha last week introduced a bill in Nebraska that aims to raise coaches' awareness of symptoms and prevent athletes from returning to practice or competition too soon.
Prevention of head trauma has been a major issue in the NFL the past year. The league has implemented new standards for the management of concussions and has cracked down on hits to the head.
"We felt a responsibility, with our platform, to advocate for better treatment of kids, who have more risk than adults do," said Jeff Miller, NFL senior vice president for government affairs.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 135,000 children ages 5 to 18 are treated in emergency rooms each year for sports- or recreation-related concussions and other head trauma. Symptoms can include headache, nausea, dizziness and trouble concentrating, and may last about a week. Sometimes it can take months to recover.
Research indicates repeat concussions can lead to brain damage, depression and memory problems including Alzheimer's disease. Young athletes are believed to be more vulnerable than adults to lasting damage because their brains are still developing.
The Nebraska bill, like others, would require public and private high schools, as well as other youth sports organizations, to provide coaches with training on how to recognize symptoms of concussions.
Athletes and their parents or guardians would be given information each year on the symptoms and risks associated with head trauma.
The bill also would require a licensed health care professional to evaluate an athlete and provide written clearance before the athlete is allowed to resume participation.
The NFL worked with the Nebraska State Athletic Trainers' Association and the Brain Injury Association of Nebraska to produce the bill.
The template is the "Zackery Lystedt Law" passed in Washington in May 2009. Lystedt must use a wheelchair after sustaining a catastrophic brain injury in a middle school football game in 2006.
Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island and Virginia also have adopted concussion legislation governing youth concussions in recent years.
"We have made a commitment to assist in the passage of 10 more similar bills in the next year and continue our advocacy around the country until every state has a concussion law," Miller said.
The laws do not mandate punishment for failure to follow the guidelines. Miller said a coach would be open to a civil lawsuit if an athlete under his or her watch were injured because the injured athlete was allowed to participate too soon.
Rusty McKune, president of the state athletic trainers' association, said the intent of the bill is to create awareness, not punish. He said he doubts a coach would intentionally hurt an athlete.
"We're hoping that by providing people with all the up-to-date facts out there on concussions that they'll be able to make the right choice rather than doing it out of fear of repercussions," McKune said.