Oregon lawmakers concerned about the potential for long-term injury from sports-related concussions passed a law in 2009. Since then, school sports coaches and trainers have been required to follow strict return-to-play strategies to make sure athletes with head injuries don’t return to sports too soon.
What have we learned from these protocols since 2009? That’s among the questions this series aims to answer.
Rattled: Oregon’s Concussion Discussion is a joint project of InvestigateWest, the Pamplin Media Group and the Agora Journalism Center, made possible in part by grants from Meyer Memorial Trust and the Center for Cooperative Media. Researcher Mark G. Harmon from the Portland State University Criminology & Criminal Justice Department provides statistical review and analysis. The New York-based Solutions Journalism Network provided training in solutions-based techniques and support to participating journalists.
Increased concern about brain trauma in youth sports puts soccer at a confounding crossroads. As athletes, parents and coaches look to limit head contact from their games, soccer enthusiasts are debating headers. They’re a dramatic part of play. But are they necessary?
Ireland Gomes spent most of her seventh-grade year in sports sitting on the bench, sidelined with a severe concussion. Her recovery took more than a year, and she still struggles with reading speed and comprehension, headaches and neck pain. Her parents now support more concussion education and awareness.
Rest, training and prevention are key to keeping young athletes healthy. And because evidence suggests that young soccer players are more likely to suffer concussions on head-to-ball contact that they’re not prepared for, training for aerial play is important. U.S. Youth Soccer doesn’t allow players younger than 10 to deliberately head the ball in its leagues. It also strongly encourages leagues that combine players age 11 and 12 to consider restricting deliberate headers. Those precautions are reasonable, said Jim Chesnutt, co-director of the Oregon Concussion Awareness and Management Program.
National research has found girls are more likely to suffer a concussion than boys in any sport. And research in 2017 found concussion rates among young female soccer players were nearly as high as concussion rates for boys playing football — and roughly triple the rate of concussions in boys’ soccer. “In a lot of ways, it’s a growing epidemic for young girls that I think has gone unpublicized,” said Jim Chesnutt, a medical expert on sports concussion. InvestigateWest and Pamplin media group crunched the numbers in Oregon.
Morgan Brunner, 13, received a concussion when hit by a stray ball during warm-up for a game of futsal. Thanks to Jenna’s Law, parents and coaches had received information about proper care and concussion protocols. Despite these success stories, there are still grey areas this law doesn’t cover, lawmakers say.
Software aids in concussion tracking: In competitive Oregon soccer leagues, there is a procedure that inadvertently serves a safety check for concussions. Referees turn in game records to the Oregon Youth Soccer Association, noting things like a substitute for a player with a possible concussion. Software used by OYSA then flags that player as needing medical clearance to return to play.
Jenna Sneva, a competitive skier from Sisters, Oregon, estimated she had 11 concussions before being diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome. Her namesake law – Jenna’s Law – helps protect young athletes competing outside of public schools.
David Kracke is a personal injury lawyer at the Nichols Law Group in Portland and a co-author of Max’s Law, Oregon’s landmark legislation aimed at reducing the impact of brain injuries among Oregon student athletes. In mid-October, Lee van der Voo, managing director of InvestigateWest and John Schrag, executive editor of the Pamplin Media Group, talked to Kracke about the history of the law.
Earlier this year, Oregon lawmakers amended Max’s Law, expanding the definition of “health professionals,” who can clear athletes with concussions to return to play. The new definition includes chiropractors, naturopaths, physical therapists and occupational therapists. The chief executive of Providence Health & Services, Doug Koekkoek, argued for including language that clarified that “a clinician should not provide medical release after a suspected concussion if it is not within the providers scope of practice.”
Also, the Oregon Medical Association, Oregon Association of Orthopedic Surgeons, and Osteopathic Physicians and Surgeons of Oregon penned a joint statement declaring “it is important that a neutral party clears the student to play, rather than a person who is employed by the school or the athletes’ team, as such a person may be subject to outside pressures.”
That argument led to the omission of school athletic trainers from the list of medical professionals qualified to allow concussed students to return to play.