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Councilor Josh Zakim proposes bills for injured college athletes

Says coverage would fill treatment gap

Councilor Josh Zakim said students need protections.

Globe File photo

Councilor Josh Zakim said students need protections.

Boston’s colleges and universities would be required to provide medical coverage to injured athletes, even beyond their undergraduate years, and honor sports scholarships regardless of injuries or other disruptions under a pair of bills being considered by the City Council this week.

The measures aim to fill a gaping hole in federal and state regulations on the treatment of college athletes, said Councilor Josh Zakim, who proposed the bills and has been critical of the NCAA’s refusal to regulate safety issues.

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“We have heard from students . . . who are paying out of their pockets to cover football injuries,’’ Zakim said. “Young people . . . deserve protections from their schools, and they definitely need protections from their city.’’

Officials at Boston College and Boston University, with whom Zakim has been in contact, emphasized that they already provide secondary insurance coverage to athletes, which covers some costs not addressed by primary insurance, and that they do not withdraw scholarships from athletes who can no longer play. Northeastern University did not respond to Globe inquiries.

Zakim, who leads the Council’s human rights and civil rights committee, will introduce both proposals to the Council on Wednesday. But questions remain about whether the Council or the city has the authority to enforce such rules and mandate colleges and universities to take action. City officials say they will weigh the issue in the upcoming weeks.

“I just don’t know how that works,’’ said Mayor Martin J. Walsh when asked about the issue this week. “I have to look at it, but I’m certainly interested in making sure our athletes — whether they are high school, college, or little guys and girls — that they have access to health care and we take serious the concussion issue.”

The health, safety, and rights of college athletes have recently come to the forefront across the country, with advocates urging better protection and safeguards for students who earn millions for their coaches and institutions but do not get paid.

‘. . . we have institutions shirking their responsibilities.’

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In Illinois, Northwestern University football players made history last month when they were granted the right to form a union to, among other things, bargain for better medical benefits. A California law now requires that coaches be trained to spot concussions in players in high-contact youth sports.

Still, advocates and specialists say, little has been done to press private and public institutions and hold them accountable on the health and safety of their student athletes.

“The general problem of college athletes not having financial protection for catastrophic long- term injuries is widespread,’’ said David Dranove, a professor of health industry management at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.

“There are some schools that will continue coverage, but others do not,’’ added Dranove. “As a result, we have institutions shirking their responsibilities.”

Massachusetts state law requires all students to have primary personal health care coverage, and some schools such as BU and BC provide secondary coverage that takes care of additional costs.

Dranove said no government entity or organization — including the NCAA — is forcing the institutions to do more. The NCAA did not respond to a request for comment.

“It’s an open-ended and potentially very expensive commitment to pay for catastrophic medical needs of these athletes,’’ Dranove said. “It’s understandable why some colleges might not want that commitment. But somebody has to bear that cost.”

Zakim said he is basing his bill on the California law and is taking the unique step of filing legislation at the local level to support thousands of athletes who live in Boston and participate in athletic events throughout the city.

The College Athlete Bill of Rights, Zakim said, will ensure that sports scholarships do not disappear if students are injured or fall out of favor with their coaches.

Colleges and universities would also be required to cover continuing injury-related issues, including concussions, long after athletes graduate.

In the second bill, Zakim is recommending that colleges establish a plan of action for athletes who suffer head, neck, and spinal injuries on game day. The proposal requires that each institution develop emergency medical protocols for game-day venues and provide an on-call neuro-trauma consultant to support medical staff on site, particularly at football, ice hockey, and men’s lacrosse games, which typically produce the highest rates of game-day concussions.

In addition, athletes will be prohibited from re-entering a game if they have a concussion, suffer from one, or are suspected of having one, Zakim said.

The national football and hockey leagues and the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association have comprehensive head injury safety guidelines, but the NCAA has “failed to establish any such protocols or guidelines for its member institutions,” the bill states.

If the Council signs off on the measures Wednesday, they will be sent to the government operations committee, which will hold public hearings. The measures must be voted on by the Council and then signed by the mayor.

Colin Riley, a BU spokesman, said the institution is in compliance with NCAA health and safety rules. Riley said that BU provides secondary health insurance for every student athlete to cover athletic-related injury or illness. The university also ensures that students do not lose their scholarships if they become injured in a collegiate sport.

“The health and well-being of all our students is our paramount concern,’’ said Riley, who added that the university will review Zakim’s ordinance.

BC said it also provides secondary insurance to its student athletes. “It is standard policy for Boston College to honor the scholarships of all student-athletes, including any who are injured and unable to play,” said BC spokesman Jack Dunn.

Andrew Ryan and Michael Vega of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.
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