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Trainers: States Dragging Feet on Student-Athlete Safety Laws

Anyone who's been following this blog on a semi-regular basis knows that student-athlete safety has been one of the biggest focuses here, especially when it comes to head injuries and concussions. Fourteen states now have youth concussion laws on the books (according to sportsconcussions.org), and many more have legislation pending.

The National Athletic Trainers' Association, however, believes that states aren't moving quickly enough to get student-athlete safety bills turned into laws.

According to the organization, 75 bills regarding young athlete safety have been introduced in state legislatures this year, yet only five have become law. (Many more are still pending—only two of the 75 safety bills had actually been killed as of March 31.) Because of that, NATA released a statement last week encouraging states to pass pending safety legislation, in spite of state budget concerns.

"It is disappointing that so much legislation been introduced, yet so little has been passed," said NATA President Marjorie J. Albohm, a certified athletic trainer. "What makes this even more concerning is that state budgets are in crisis, so legislators are cutting programs that keep kids safe. In many cases athletic trainer positions are at risk of being terminated—eliminating the very people who protect and provide medical services to physically active children. And, we know that many of the current bills are specific to concussion and that there are other health conditions including sudden cardiac arrest and heat illness that require legislative attention."

As it turns out, Lauran Neergaard of the Associated Press wrote an article this week touching on the last topic Albohm brought up: whether or not schools should give EKG tests to all student-athletes. The inspiration of the article, in part, was Wes Leonard, a 16-year-old basketball player from Michigan who died of a heart attack on the court last month. As Neergaard wrote, the goal of routine EKGs would be "to find those at risk because of underlying heart conditions before strenuous exertion triggers trouble."

Neergaard cited a new study from University of Washington researchers which found that one in every 44,000 NCAA student-athletes suffers a heart-related death every year. But, as Neergaard points out, mandating the $25 to $100 EKGs for millions of student-athletes simply isn't feasible in this economic climate, especially due to a recent study that found 16 percent of routine EKGs result in false positives.

What's a school to do? Neergaard provided one suggestion that University of Georgia Director of Sports Medicine Ron Courson called "the most important thing":

The American Heart Association recommends a thorough physical exam and detailed family and personal medical history for every athlete, but not an automatic EKG. The idea is to look for red flags—like fainting episodes, a heart murmur or whether a relative died young of a heart problem—that would prompt the doctor to order further cardiac testing.

There's no doubt that a detailed medical history for all student-athletes should be schools' logical, low-cost first step. And as Albohm said in the NATA press release, schools with athletic trainer positions on the chopping block due to budgetary concerns should try to preserve them at all costs—after all, ensuring student-athlete safety should be schools' highest priority in athletics.

Time will tell whether states pass the 60+ safety bills for young athletes that are currently pending, many of which are related to brain injuries. At this point, though, there's little reason for states to delay action on youth concussion legislation, given the wave of support for these types of bills across the United States in the past year.

And barring exorbitant costs, lawmakers should be doing their part to ensure that other safety measures for student-athletes aren't far behind.

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