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Require baseline concussion testing for youth sports

To be fair, I should state right off the bat that I am a football mom and a coach's wife. Three of my children are boys and all of them played for youth sports associations. And all three suffered injuries during their time playing sports. Lucky for us none of those injuries was severe enough to warrant a trip to the emergency room for further treatment, though over the years I have witnessed more than my fair share of ambulances rushing an injured athlete from the field to the hospital. I'm positive I'm not the only mom who has ever said a silent prayer for the child being whisked away while at the same time breathing a sigh of relief that he wasn't mine.

However, when my oldest son was injured in a high school football game and needed to be taken to the emergency room for a CT scan, the doctors asked us if he'd ever had a head injury. To the best of our recollection, we thought that he hadn't. When the results came back that he might have a brain bleed and we needed to take him for further testing, we were asked over and over again how many serious hits to the head he'd taken over his many years playing youth football. Because there was no baseline testing for youth sports done at the time (and there still isn't in the league that he played for) we had no medical records to fall back on and had to rely solely on our memories in order to assist the medical staff.

There is an interesting debate going on right now about the safety of the athletes in all facets of youth sports. We see stories on the evening news about children who have suffered concussions so severe playing youth soccer that they suffer constant, debilitating headaches. Concussions have also long been an issue in youth football and hockey. And though every team strives to make sure that its athletes are being supplied with all of the right safety equipment so that they might avoid injury, the rate of children being seen in emergency rooms for concussion-related symptoms has doubled in the last decade.

This dramatic increase in numbers begs the question of whether there are actually more concussions being suffered, or whether coaches, sideline trainers and parents are more attuned to identifying the symptoms of concussion and therefore availing themselves to the medical community in order to further identify and treat that which we are now recognizing as a very real and serious health risk to youth athletes.

The question that seems to continue to go unanswered, though, is when is enough enough? What standards are youth sports associations guided by in order to determine if particular symptoms of a possible concussion are serious enough to sideline a player for the remainder of a game, the remainder of a season or, worst-case scenario, indefinitely? Who is making the rules and what criteria are the policy makers using in order to keep our children safe?

The lack of a comprehensive national standard for youth sports baseline concussion testing only serves to muddy the waters when it comes to local associations trying to put together any sort of remedial, cost-effective program for their own athletes. Without a baseline test, it's difficult to gauge the severity of a particular athlete's concussion, which may lead to a child being sent back to play before he or she is actually medically ready.

And there's always the question of cost. It seems a logical conclusion that suburban associations would most likely have an easier time absorbing the cost of hiring a qualified physician to administer baseline testing to each of their athletes than their urban counterparts might. And any association that is struggling financially, no matter where it is located, could end up under water on the issue. The unfortunate reality is that only some kids, not all kids, will be getting the necessary baseline testing done if a mandatory national standard is not put in place and enforced by all youth sports associations.

So what's the solution? We as parents are our child's first and best line of defense. We need to approach our associations and ask whether they are working toward instituting a comprehensive baseline concussion testing program. We need to ask what the costs associated with it will be and how we, as parents, can help to make it work.

Will our role be to do extra fundraising, or will we simply have to accept the fact that our children's teams may not get all of the cosmetic improvements that we might like? Perhaps we need to let our associations know that we are in favor of substance over style, and that we are willing to forgo non-essentials like new uniforms or our children's names on their jerseys in order to put those same funds to better use.

I wonder what the loved ones of NFL players Dave Duerson, Andre Waters, Terry Long and our own Justin Strzelczyk would say if we asked them? Or family members of NHL "enforcers" Wade Belak, Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien? Would they say that we should sit idly by and let our sports associations make a decision about our children's safety on a cost-effectiveness scale? Or worse yet, on whether the institution of this type of safety program would be inconvenient or impossible to administer effectively, or any number of other red herrings?

Would those deceased players' moms say that we should let an association brush off our concerns by labeling us as stereotypically overprotective? Would those deceased players' dads agree that it's OK to be intimidated into not asking questions because you might not know as much about the rules and fundamentals of the game as the coach does?

Or would the family members who have lost loved ones due to complications associated with traumatic brain injury after playing in the NFL and NHL say that parents of youth athletes should stand up for their children's best interests? That we should approach our sports associations and ask to open a dialogue about the real cost of comprehensive baseline concussion testing in youth sports.

Tiaina Baul Seau Jr, "Junior" Seau to his fans, used to say, "Work for today, plan for tomorrow and pray for the rest." I think we need to work diligently to keep our children safe today, help to put systems in place in order to ensure that they are given every opportunity for bright tomorrows and to say a prayer for those people who administer youth sports associations and make the rules that our athletes will have to play by. We owe our children no less.

Linda Turpin, a coach's wife from Lockport, supports baseline concussion testing for children playing youth sports.