Starting the Monday after Thanksgiving, youth sports, after-school athletic programs, and community centers in Boston must have concussion training and management procedures in place before teams can hit the court or field.
With its new city ordinance, Boston joins a growing effort to protect young athletes from the hazards of head injuries. A state law passed in 2010 already targets the problem in middle and high school sports, but some communities are trying to extend protections to younger children as well.
“We’re happy to be on the forefront of it,” said Boston City Council President Stephen Murphy, who introduced the proposal earlier this year.
Ashland has a bylaw going into effect in January aimed at all youth organizations playing on town fields or facilities. And a town official in Southbridge, where five children suffered concussions during a single Pop Warner football game in September, wants his community do the same.
“There shouldn’t be a need for a bylaw like this,” said Shaun Moriarty, a town council member who is pushing for a law similar to Ashland’s. “Common sense tells you that a lot of what happened on the football field that day should not have happened.”
On Sept. 15, five players between ages 10 and 12 from the Tantasqua Pee Wees suffered concussions when they were overrun, 52-0, by a Southbridge team. Afterward, Central Massachusetts Pop Warner league officials permanently banned the three game officials and suspended both coaches for the season. Both sides said they were not at fault.
The Boston ordinance applies to all public and private schools and community centers that organize any kind of extracurricular athletic activity for youths under18. It also extends to any independent athletic organization that obtains a permit to use city-owned facilities. Visiting teams would be exempt, according to Molly O’Connell, Murphy’s spokeswoman.
Schools and community centers must ensure that all coaches, trainers, volunteers, physicians, school nurses, and athletic directors receive annual head injury training. Youth sports organizations must also certify that their coaches, trainers, athletes, and referees receive training.
Athletes with a suspected head injury must be removed from play and cannot return until they get medical clearance.
Walter Apperwhite, vice president of Mattapan Patriots Pop Warner, said his group will do whatever needs to be done to comply with the ordinance.
“To me it’s not anything outrageous or revolutionary; it’s really just the next step,” he said. “It’s not something we’re fighting or feel like it’s too much for us.”
He said training can be an added expense, but the safety of the athletes has to come first.
Nationally, Pop Warner requires training for head coaches, but the Pop Warner Football Conference of Eastern Massachusetts will require all coaches to complete concussion awareness training starting next year, said Joe Panniello, president of the conference, which includes six of the Boston-based teams.
He said his group is also looking into requiring concussion education for all athletes and hopes to extend the requirement to parents at some point, too.
Sports leagues at all levels — professional to peewee — have been responding to concussion concerns with new rules over the last couple of years. But soon more cities and towns could start getting involved, said Chris Nowinski, executive director of the Boston-based Sports Legacy Institute, who worked with the city on its ordinance.
“Clearly it will make sports safer and children safer, so why not?” Nowinski said.
Starting Jan. 1, youth sports groups in Ashland will face new requirements — with fines for noncompliance. Players suspected of having a concussion cannot return to play without written medical clearance, according to the bylaw approved by Town Meeting this past spring.
It also requires parents, coaches, and athletes over 10 to receive education in how to recognize and respond to a concussion.
Joe White, president of Ashland Youth Soccer, said his group started requiring head coaches on the travel team, which includes players over age 10, to get concussion training this spring.
He said he supports the law and was reminded of its importance last month when his 14-year-old daughter suffered a concussion playing soccer.
Weeks later, he said, she still had headaches, light sensitivity, and trouble focusing her attention for long periods, all classic signs of concussion.
“I’m supportive of anything that protects the kids of the program,” White said. “Living it myself as well, I’m more cognizant of the injury and what it does to the child.”
He was concerned that the bylaw might make him responsible for players from outside Ashland who come to play in town.
But that’s not the case, according to Mark Oram, Ashland’s Board of Health director, who said the board has jurisdiction only over town players and town-owned fields and facilities. Ashland’s law covers school fields and facilities when they host an organized youth athletic activity, but middle and high school sports fall under the state law.
John Reap, chairman of Ashland’s Board of Health, said the casual “shake it off” response to concussions is on the wane, but it is still out there, and that is why the education component is crucial.
“I think we wanted to do something just to kind of hopefully lead the way a little bit,” he said.