COMMENTARY: A New Mexico law passed in 2010 regulates the treatment of head trauma in school sports. Specifically, any athlete diagnosed with a head injury has to sit out for at least a week. But this December, a football player in Albuquerque found a way around the regulation by getting a judge to issue a temporary restraining order. It is a horrible precedent, and the practice needs to be stopped.
I used to play soccer goalkeeper. One of the main parts of the position requires covering up the ball with your body, usually in a scrum of other players. That meant getting hit in the head, which led to concussions. I always went back in because I wanted to win and prove what a tough guy I was.
But most of my playing time happened before research on the perils of repeated head trauma started coming out 10 years ago, and the conclusions scare me. Scientists have discovered that repeated blows to the head can cause memory loss, confusion, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and eventually progressive dementia that might not show up for decades. These problems are worse for teenagers, as injuries can impede the growth of a young brain with cells still growing connections to one another.
In treating this condition, research shows that recovery time is vital. If the brain is given time to heal, even after another concussion, long-term problems are less likely. That’s why our law requires student-athletes to sit out at least seven days following the diagnosis of a concussion on the field.
The pressure to win in high school athletics, though, is huge and some athletes, parents, and coaches may try to get around the rules. Unfortunately that’s what happened this year. The player above was diagnosed with a concussion by the team’s athletic trainer and was asked to sit out the next game… which happened to be the state championship. So the player’s family took a doctor’s report (saying it was “unlikely” he had a brain injury) to a judge, who issued a temporary injunction to the seven-day law the day before the championship.
Thankfully, the team’s coach chose to sit the injured player with the exception of one down because of safety concerns. This was smart, as the family’s doctor later said she was never told about the concussion. If she had, she said there is no way he would have been cleared.
This loophole is frightening; if someone wants to play bad enough, all they have to do is find a willing doctor and judge. Because the process might not allow time to get the full story, a kid with head trauma could end up playing.
In today’s world there is much discussion about the perils of putting ”kids in bubble wrap” — how over-protection can lead to a lack of experiences that would otherwise lead them to be better people. Furthermore, some worry about changing the games they grew up with to a point where they aren’t recognizable. But reasonable, research-based safety rules do neither of these things. For instance, my father played high-school football when the “head slap” (where a defensive player hits an offensive lineman in the head to disorient them) was still legal. No one now sees rules disallowing tactical blows to the head as anything but a good thing.
Playing in a state championship game can be the most important thing in the world for a high-school kid, but you only have one brain. If it is damaged, the consequences will last the rest of your life and the New Mexico Athletic Association has formally asked that our law be changed to stop this loophole. I support their request, and will work with the Legislature to make sure that our kids’ brains are protected.
McCamley, a Democrat, is the state representative for District 33.