The National Athletic Trainers' Association (NATA) unveiled a 10-point "Student Athletes' Bill of Rights" and worked on putting the finishing touches on a National Action Plan for Sports Safety today at its fourth Youth Sports Safety Summit.
The bill of rights says, among other things, that student-athletes have the right to be coached by individuals who are well-trained in sport-specific safety; the right to immediate, on-site injury assessments made by qualified sports medicine professionals; and the right to have the latest information about the benefits and potential risks of participation in youth sports.
The document "is an example of taking the need for athletic trainers in high schools and secondary schools to the level of students having the right of appropriate health care," said James Thornton, the president of NATA, in his introduction to the summit.
The National Action Plan for Sports Safety, meanwhile, will be finalized tonight and distributed tomorrow to members of the Youth Sports Safety Alliance.
The alliance members will spend tomorrow down on Capitol Hill visiting Congressional lawmakers and promoting the new sports-safety plan.
The Need for a Sports-Safety Plan
Thirty-four youth athletes suffered sports-related fatalities in the United States in 2012, according to data compiled by NATA, with sudden cardiac arrest or suspected sudden cardiac arrest by far the leading culprits.
"High school athletes are the largest constituent of deaths in organized sports," said Douglas Casa, the chief operating officer of the Korey Stringer Institute, during his presentation at the summit. He attributed this fact largely due to the sheer number of high school athletes, which totaled over 7.5 million in 2011-12, according to the most recent Sports Participation Survey from the National Federation of High School Sports Associations.
One such athlete, 15-year-old Nicholas Dellaventura from New York, died in August from suspected exertional heat stroke. However, Dawn Comstock, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health Pediatric Injury Prevention, Education, and Research Program, said during her presentation at the summit that heat-related deaths in youth sports were entirely preventable.
"We should never have another high school athlete die from a heat event," Comstock said. "Ever. Period."
Sixty percent of all sports-related heat illnesses occur in August, according to a study Comstock discussed during her presentation, and the heat-illness incident rate in football was 11.4 times that in all other sports. Nearly one-third of all practice-related heat illnesses occurred more than two hours into the practice session, Comstock said.
"We believe that we simply need to try much, much harder to protect these young athletes," said Chris Nowinski, co-founder and director of the Boston-based Sports Legacy Institute.
Next Steps With Youth-Sports Concussions
Nowinski, a concussion expert, opened the summit with a presentation on keeping youths safe through education and research. He said that based on the results of state concussion surveys in recent years, "there's no reason to believe that we aren't missing 90 percent of concussions."
For a host of reasons, concussions can be even more dangerous for youth-athletes than adults, Nowinski explained. Youths have brains that are still developing and are more sensitive to the shock of concussion, a weak head-to-body ratio and weak necks that don't distribute force to the body well, poor access to medical resources, and coaches with various levels of training.
He framed student-athlete safety, especially in regards to neurological health, as an ethical issue.
"No child should have his or her neurological health taken away because an adult is too lazy to go through the training programs," Nowinski said.
Kevin Guskiewicz, the director of the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, agreed with Nowinski in this regard.
"We need to raise the bar in respect to coaching," Guskiewicz said. "We need to infuse better pedagogical talent into the coaching ranks, starting at the youth level."
Guskiewicz cited recent comments made by President Obama regarding the safety of football, but respectfully disagreed with the president. He expressed optimism that "we can find a way to make the game [of football] safe," noting that two of his three children participated in football this past fall.
"There's no evidence that football makes people stupid," Guskiewicz said. "There is evidence, however, that people make football stupid."
He suggested that simple reforms, such as the National Football League's decision to move kickoffs up five yards, could have tangible results in terms of player safety.
Legal Ramifications of Youth-Concussion Laws
Charles Gfeller (Matthew's uncle), a partner at Seiger Gfeller Laurie, Attorneys at Law, spoke at the summit about how youth-concussion laws could wield legal ramifications for schools and districts in certain states.
In states that have sovereign immunity, the general rule is that the organization of school athletic teams in public schools is a governmental function and therefore in the absence of a statute, districts are immune from liability, Gfeller said.
For states where sovereign immunity isn't in place, however, schools and other municipalities with liability insurance can be sued in the event of a student-athlete injury.
Gfeller believes that concussions could be further eroding sovereign immunity, as youth-concussion laws may be placing a legal obligation on school employees to ensure that athletes don't return to play before fully healing from a concussion.
He warned summit attendees that plaintiffs' lawyers will "use concussion laws as swords," not shields. In other words, if coaches or other school staff members don't follow a concussion protocol to a T, the plaintiffs' lawyers could sue the school for negligence as a result of not following the protocol.
Certain states, such as Colorado, have carved out that opportunity in their youth-concussion laws by saying schools and school staff still can't be sued based on these protocols.
Casa from the Stringer Institute noted that in most states, the state high school athletic association (often comprised largely of coaches) controls all of the health and safety policies for athletes.
"That should scare a lot of people in this room," he said. "If you had a family member who had cancer, would you seek out a coach for advice?"
Check back here tomorrow for a discussion of NATA's National Action Plan for Sports Safety, once the document is finalized and released to the public.
Photos (from top): The Youth Sports Safety Alliance looks on as Kevin Guskiewicz presents at the fourth Youth Sports Safety Summit on Tuesday, Feb. 5, in Washington, D.C. (Jordan Grantham/NATA)
Kevin Guskiewicz gives a presentation on the culture of youth sports at the Youth Sports Safety Summit. (Jordan Grantham/NATA)
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