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Sports Safety Study: Some States Don't Protect Athletes Enough

University of Connecticut’s Korey Stringer Institute

The University of Connecticut’s Korey Stringer Institute has released a national study on high school sports safety. It lays out what states are, or are not, doing to protect athletes from concussions, heat stroke and sudden cardiac arrest. Massachusetts is ranked near the top in terms of prevention.

When it comes to pro athletes, the data isn’t as murky as it was even a decade ago — concussions and brain injury have been found in alarming numbers in the NFL. Concerns are now reaching the high school level, and studies have concluded that even one blow to the head could result in a life-long injury. 

Since 2009, all 50 states have passed laws that require athletes, coaches and parents to go through some kind of concussion training. Many policies include the mandatory removal of athletes from a game or practice until they receive medical clearance to return – especially if a head injury is suspected.

UConn’s Korey Stringer Institute found that policies vary from state to state and that some states are not doing enough to protect athletes from concussions, as well as other life-threatening injuries like heat stroke and sudden cardiac arrest.

The institute is named for the late NFL player who died from complications of heat stroke during a Vikings practice in 2001.

“So we developed a grading rubric that assessed current best practices for not only preventing, but also managing those leading causes of death,” Adams said.

University of North Carolina at Greensboro Professor William Adams co-led the study.

The top five states were Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and South Dakota – with North Carolina ranked at No. 1. In the Northeast, New York came in at number 12; Pennsylvania at 22; Maine 26; Rhode Island 27; Vermont 34; Connecticut at 38, and New Hampshire, 44. Colorado was last.

Adams said Massachusetts ranked high because it has appropriate medical coverage and emergency preparedness.

“Primarily having access to an AED on site, appropriate training for coaches and any other personnel interacting within the athletics program,” Adams said. “They also had policies relating to exertional heat stroke such as phasing in of activities during pre-season practices to improve one’s heat tolerance to exercise in hot conditions. They also had policies surrounding environmental monitoring, having policies on what to do with traumatic head injuries.”

For example, a 2014 series by WAMC News found the Mount Greylock School District in Berkshire County reported roughly 50 students with head injuries a year. The district has internal conversations every year about refining its policy.

UConn’s study found that in the past 30 years there have been 735 deaths, and 626 more of what Adams calls “catastrophic injuries” related to high school sports – and an increase of 60 percent over the last decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Tom Ostheimer had coached varsity women’s soccer at Mount Greylock for eight years when WAMC spoke with him in 2014.

“I think we are on sort of a tipping point here in terms of how we’re going to deal with the high rates of concussions,” Ostheimer said.

Massachusetts parents, coaches and students are required to take the National Federation of State High School Associations' concussion course – a cognitive test during the preseason to provide a baseline of data to be used if a player suffers a head injury later on.

“Then they have that in terms of gauging how soon the player can come back,” Ostheimer said.

Adams said states score higher for having return-to-play strategies, and for having athletic trainers on site to carry out emergency action plans and medical care.

“Ensuring everyone is on the same page to make sure that the athletes are cared for appropriately,” Adams said.

States were notified of their ranking in the study and were able review scores with feedback.

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