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Retired NFL players lend support to student-athlete injury bill

They recount their own experiences to state legislators weighing a proposal to require high school players to leave a game after head injury and get written medical clearance before returning to play.

December 15, 2010|By Jack Dolan, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Sacramento — The NFL is lending its public relations muscle to a proposal that would require California student athletes who leave a game after a head injury to get written medical clearance before returning to the field or court.

Retired players, including Raiders legends Jim Otto and Fred Biletnikoff and San Francisco 49ers Pro Bowl players Keena Turner and Eric Davis, recounted their own experiences Tuesday to support the measure in Sacramento.

Davis told how a blow to the head in a game against the Detroit Lions rendered him temporarily blind in his left eye. Reasoning that he played the left side of the field, and the bad eye was facing the sideline, Davis said he stayed in the game, unaware of the risk he was taking.

Since then, research has shown that repeated head trauma can lead to brain bleeding, memory loss, depression and even death. Middle school and high school athletes, whose brains are still developing, are even more vulnerable than college athletes and professionals, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The decision to leave a game should be "out of the player's hands, and out of the coach's hands," Davis said, because they can be too caught up in the competition to make good decisions.

The NFL, which drastically amended its own approach to the treatment of brain injuries following headlines about the tragic health problems of aging players, is backing legislation in 44 states this year that would require young players who suffer head injuries to stay off the field for at least the rest of the day and to get a medical professional's signature before they play again.

Parents would have to sign a "concussion awareness fact sheet" before their kids could play in a sports program in any league covered by the California bill. The prohibition would apply not only to official school teams but also to nonprofits and other organizations using public school facilities for youth sports.

Like legislation the NFL is backing around the country, California's is modeled on a Washington State law enacted after a middle school football player returned to the field following a head injury and suffered subsequent damage that left him connected to a ventilator, fighting for his life.

Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi (D-Castro Valley), sponsor of California's proposal, AB 25, backed unsuccessful legislation in the past that would have required high school coaches to be trained to spot symptoms of potentially dangerous head and neck injuries. Hayashi said she thinks the current bill stands a better chance of success because it would not place a financial burden on schools.

"We're assuming that the students are covered under their parents' healthcare plan," Hayashi said, and the required medical discharge would be no more burdensome than if "they had a cold, or the flu."

State Sen. Tony Strickland (R-Moorpark), the bill's co-sponsor, said he expected coaches to welcome the measure because it would relieve them of the burden of deciding whether a player could safely get back in the game following a potentially dangerous blow to the head.

More than 3 million sports and recreation-related concussions are suffered each year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Football is the leading cause among high school boys; soccer is the main reason for high school girls.

Nearly half of those injured return to play too early, according to a 2010 report by the Center for Injury Research and Policy, based at the Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Sixteen percent of high school football players who lost consciousness following a blow to the head returned to play the same day, the report says.

Staying in the game following head injuries was routine in the era when Otto, a Hall of Fame center, was snapping balls and taking a pounding for the Raiders in the 1960s and 1970s. Otto has endured nearly 70 surgeries on his knees, shoulders and hips to repair damage done during his years in the NFL's trenches.

Standing at the podium Tuesday, Otto motioned to his former teammate. "I remember looking over at Biletnikoff in the huddle, looking all cross-eyed, and saying, 'Snap out of it.' He'd say, 'I am snapped out of it.' "

Now that he understands the dangers of repeated head injuries, mostly from watching friends struggle with the long-term effects, Otto said, "It's imperative that this thing has to pass and that our children have to be protected."

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