Massachusetts should be proud of its efforts to require schools to protect students who suffer concussions while playing sports, a move that puts it at the cutting edge of sports medicine. But the state needs to take much stronger steps to make sure all schools comply.
Data from Boston University and other research centers have raised serious questions about the health risks of football, hockey, soccer, and other sports that may expose athletes to head injuries. Researchers at BU and Virginia Tech have found that concussions and repeated, low-impact head hits can seriously damage the brain. A Massachusetts law, which went into effect for the 2011-12 school year, requires schools to report any suspected concussions and head injuries suffered by their athletes, including those that took place outside of school. This is necessary both to track the extent of the head-injury problem and to ensure that schools are appropriately mindful of students’ health: An athlete suffering from a concussion has no place on the gridiron or any other playing field.
Under the law, injured students are only allowed to play again after they have received clearance from qualified medical personnel to do so, and they may only return gradually. School districts must also provide training each year to students, parents, and staff on recognizing and responding to these injuries.
But there is increasing evidence that some districts aren’t following the rules. While state officials have done well to help the approximately 430 districts implement the injury precautions, less than a tenth of the districts have reported head injury data for the past school year, according to a Globe report. Some of the slow reporting is surely due to the fact that the rules are still new, but more schools would comply if they faced a deadline from the Department of Public Health, which can hand down non-compliance penalties.
It’s well past time for the public-health department to set a deadline, and the state should be prepared to put some teeth in it. Schools that fail to meet the deadline, despite fair warnings, shouldn’t be allowed to practice or compete until they do so. The point isn’t to enforce bureaucratic efficiency, but to make certain that every district is looking after the health of its student athletes.