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Return to Play Laws & Youth Football

When a child or teen gets hurt during a sporting event, what comes next? Parents who have witnessed such situations know how frightening they can be, but not all know how the law protects them and their kids. They may also be unaware of the severity of the injury and trust coaches to decide how to proceed with helping youth athletes return to play after concussions. Return-to-play laws might help put families on a stronger legal footing when responsible adult figures make mistakes that place youth athletes in serious harm's way.

What Are TBIs?

A TBI, or traumatic brain injury, is a type of physical harm that stops the brain from working the way it's supposed to. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), TBIs usually occur when victims' heads are bumped, jolted or struck.

Concussions are a form of mild TBI. That doesn't mean that they don't require immediate medical attention, however. With TBIs playing a role in almost one-third of all U.S. injury deaths, it's important to respond quickly and correctly.

Even with mild TBIs, symptoms may include:

  • Blurry vision
  • Ringing noises in the victim's ears
  • Headaches, confusion, dizziness, or light-headedness
  • Trouble focusing or recalling facts
  • Nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to things like sounds and lights
  • Momentary or lengthy losses of consciousness

Although these symptoms vary widely, one thing that many of them share is the fact that they can be hard to identify in the individuals who are suffering from them. A child who suffers from a TBI might not be able to communicate what's going on. With more serious injuries, they could experience comas, seizures, or permanent headaches.

What Is a Concussion Protocol?

Many of the sports that children play come with risks of TBIs. A January 2015 Boston University School of Medicine study suggested that youth football players have higher risks of cognitive impairment. The same research found that issues with thinking and remembering could continue to impact under-12 tackle football players into their adult years.

Football isn't the only potentially hazardous sport, however. As one Worcester Polytechnic Institute study noted in 2014, young players can experience head impacts during a range of activities. Head injuries can occur when youth athletes collide with stationary objects while playing ice hockey, trip during basketball games, or get struck in the head by flying baseballs.

Concussion protocols are important guidelines that specify what should happen when a player shows or feels signs of a TBI. By educating players, parents, and other adults about the risks and symptoms of concussions, these documents try to ensure that injured players get the treatment they need before being allowed to return to the field.

Are Concussion Protocols Enforceable?

Different organizations, including school district sports leagues and regional extracurricular programs, take different approaches to crafting concussion protocols. These protocols may feature:

  • Basic steps that athletic trainers and coaches should follow when they suspect that someone sustained a head injury
  • Rules on when and whether apparent TBI sufferers can start playing again
  • Waivers that parents or youth athletes have to sign to acknowledge the risks of concussions

Many concussion protocols also include educational materials that teach parents how to recognize concussion signs. Protocols that include waivers are increasingly common at the college level. This raises an important question: How do parents ensure that concussion protocols work correctly, especially when they trust their children's safety to other adults?

Depending on the situation, some concussion protocol standards may be difficult to enforce. For instance, a child who gets hit in the head during practice might not want to report the injury because they'd rather keep participating. Because some children lack the maturity to appreciate how serious TBIs are, their parents and guardians might find it necessary to take charge and hold coaches and administrators accountable.

How Can Victims and Their Families Hold Others Responsible?

All 50 U.S. states have return-to-play laws that require youth athletics organizations to maintain concussion protocols that define when it's safe for injured players to start participating again. If a child experiences a TBI because a coach or league official failed to follow the local rules, the victims may be able to pursue a settlement because the person acted negligently.

When a court finds that someone acted negligently, it means that they intentionally fell short of doing what any reasonable person should have known was the right thing to do. With studies showing that return-to-play laws and concussion protocols in high schools have raised awareness among athletes and families, it may be possible to argue that any reasonable sports official should know the risks. This is especially true considering that many protocols require the adults in charge to go through specific training on dealing with TBIs properly.

Other actions might also be deemed negligent by a court. For instance, if a league or school doesn't maintain its sports equipment or facilities, they might increase the risks of someone getting hurt while using them. Because it's their responsibility to perform upkeep, parents of victims could try to bring a suit against them.

When and how youth athletes return to play after concussions can affect their lives for decades. Although it's impossible to reverse a TBI after it occurs, victims may benefit from pursuing lawsuits and other legal remedies to help them deal with medical costs, gain a sense of closure, and ensure that what happened to them doesn't happen to others.

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