An effort to extend Connecticut’s concussion awareness and response laws to the youngest athletes now underway in the state Legislature’s Committee on Children received support Tuesday from one of Connecticut’s experts in sports neurology, Dr. Anthony Alessi of Norwich.
Alessi, director of UConn NeuroSport at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Storrs, testified to the committee about how to better protect children in recreational leagues from concussions.
He advocated requiring concussion training for the volunteer youth team coaches and the presence of athletic trainers at tournaments and other large gatherings, among other measures.
“These children’s leagues have the highest levels of participation, and there is no on-site medical care,” Alessi said. “This is our most vulnerable group.”
Current concussion laws in the state apply only to students who play high school sports.
They require coaches to complete online training courses in recognizing and treating concussions, brain injury education and signed consent from parents and medical clearance for an athlete to return to play after a concussion, among other measures.
State Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, co-chairwoman of the Committee on Children, said she and other members are planning to introduce a bill this session that also would require all volunteer coaches of teams using municipal or school fields to complete the online concussion education course.
As with high school sports, parents of younger athletes also would be required to take an online concussion education course and give signed consent, and athletic trainers would have to be present at tournaments for youth sports teams.
In addition, the current law would be strengthened to require high school coaches to take refresher courses every two years rather than every five, she said.
In the most controversial of the proposals she plans to advance, youth football players would not be allowed to tackle until high school.
“We’re going to put it out there,” she said of the proposed legislation being written. “We expect there will be a huge discussion about that.”
She cited Alessi’s testimony, in which he noted that professional football quarterbacks Eli and Peyton Manning and Tom Brady never participated in youth football leagues, but rather worked on learning football skills until their bodies were developed enough for contact play.
Alessi also noted that the American Academy of Pediatrics is promoting more non-tackling football leagues.
The proposed legislation, Urban said, would apply to all sports, not just football.
“I’m a huge proponent of sports teams,” she said, emphasizing that she does not want to undermine the positive benefits of youth athletics. “We’re not trying to stop kids playing football or lacrosse or soccer, just to set some parameters.”
In his testimony, Alessi likened a concussion to having “a leak in your basement.” When the brain receives a jolt, it causes a leak in the nerve cells that needs time and rest to heal, much like a “moldy, smelly rug in your basement” needs time to dry out after a flood.
Having a second impact shortly after the initial concussion, he said, is often the cause of the most serious injury in young athletes, so keeping them out of the game to give the brain enough time to heal is crucial.
He also advocated that sports such as women’s lacrosse — even though physical contact is accidental — begin requiring players to wear helmets.
“Any sport where there is a ball moving at high velocity and a stick should require players wear helmets, and that includes playing golf with me,” he said.
The evidence from high school sports, he said, shows that having athletic trainers on hand results in better recognition and treatment for concussions, and that practice should become standard for younger athletes as well.
“If you cannot afford an athletic trainer, you cannot afford a high velocity contact sport,” he said.
James Doran, athletic trainer for the UConn men’s basketball team and president of the Connecticut Athletic Trainers Association, noted that current state laws require athletic trainers only for sports that practice three or more times per week.
Many youth sports, he said, practice only once a week, but involve many more athletes.
“In these big tournaments, there are lots of kids running around and very little health care,” he said.
Like Urban, Alessi said taking steps to reduce and better respond to concussions should not be interpreted as an effort to discourage participation in youth sports.
“Sports has been the reason for many children to not do the wrong thing,” he said. “There is no way we should eliminate sports. But we need to figure out how to do this in a better way so we get all the attributes without all the injury.”