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Concussion safety courses expected to be mandatory for youth coaches in Erie County

A new law is likely to be approved next month that would require most youth sports coaches in Erie County to take a course in concussion safety or risk having their sports organizations fined.

The proposal, which has bipartisan support in the County Legislature, would require that coaches of any “contact or collision sports” take a free concussion safety program offered by the County Health Department or online through the Centers for Disease Control’s HEADS UP to Youth Sports.

Youth sports organizations that cannot produce records showing their coaches and supervisors have completed a concussion safety course would be subject to a $100 fine, with subsequent violations in a calendar year resulting in a $200 fine.

Health professionals have expressed serious concerns about the impact of traumatic brain injuries on youth, with research showing that younger people can take longer to recover from concussions than adults. Concussions can also affect brain development, which continues until a person reaches their mid-20s.

“There can be permanent disabilities,” said Health Commissioner Gale Burstein. “We know that long-term problems can affect people’s ability to think, their memories, their ability to learn.”

Organizations like the Western New York Amateur Football Alliance, however, had expressed some concerns about the proposed law because their groups already provide concussion safety to their coaches and staff.

But proposal co-sponsors Legislator Patrick Burke, D-Buffalo, and Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, said the law would be amended to exempt any youth organization that already offers comparable or better concussion safety training to its coaches.

The compromise law is likely to be approved at the Legislature’s next regular meeting in two weeks. No one spoke at a public hearing held Thursday.

Burstein expressed hesitation about the law because it would require the Health Department to offer four free trainings a year.

“Legislators did not consult the Erie County Department of Health in the drafting of this Local Law,” she said in a statement. “While the Erie County Department of Health does not have any expertise or experience in regulating youth sports, we recommend that coaches interested in concussion training explore the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s ‘HEADS UP’ program, which is available for free online.”

Burke, however, said that the University at Buffalo Concussion Management Clinic staff has offered to help the Health Department in providing the training without cost.

“If this is the law, and they have a willing partner to help with this, there should be no objection,” he said.

Burke said he was initially prompted to sponsor the law because of his own experiences in youth football, and because of a scare on his son’s football team in which two players collided and coaches and parents had no idea how to handle the situation. Lorigo said he also has young children and agreed to work with Burke on a compromise proposal.

The men’s partnership for this proposal is surprising because Burke and members of the Legislature majority initially submitted two competing concussion safety proposals, with Burke accusing the majority coalition of co-opting his proposal and presenting it as their own idea. Burke and Lorigo said Thursday that after the dust settled, they were able to reach a compromise.