Kids and concussions

Ohio aims to protect young athletes

Are you or someone you know on a school board or the board of a youth sports organization? By now you may have heard about Ohio's new Return-to-Play Law, which is designed to prevent student athletes from returning to practice or competition after suffering concussions until they are medically ready. With the new school year getting under way and practices in full swing, we thought it might be a good idea to take a closer look at this new law.

The Return-to-Play Law, which took effect this spring, focuses on educating parents, athletes, coaches and referees about the dangers associated with concussions, especially the risks in returning to play before the athlete is fully recovered. Before any student may practice or compete in interscholastic athletics, the student and his or her parent or guardian must sign a concussion information sheet, created by the Ohio Department of Health (ODH), that describes the symptoms of a concussion, the importance of seeking medical attention right away and the risks of returning to play too early, including the possibility of suffering a second blow that could lead to brain damage, paralysis or even death.

Both paid and unpaid coaches of interscholastic athletics must hold a Pupil Activity Permit (PAP) issued by the Ohio Department of Education and must present evidence that they have completed an approved training program in recognizing the symptoms of concussions and other head injuries.

Referees for interscholastic athletics must either hold a PAP or complete every three years a training program on recognizing the symptoms of concussions and other head injuries. The program must be either an online program linked to the ODH website or another training program authorized and required by an organization that regulates interscholastic competition.

Under the new law, coaches and referees are required to remove from practice or competition a student athlete who exhibits signs, symptoms or behaviors consistent with a concussion or other head injury. Under no circumstances may an athlete return to play on the same day he or she is removed. Coaches and referees are also prohibited from allowing a student to return to practice or competition until the student has been cleared to return by a physician or other licensed health care provider authorized by the school.

A similar law applies to youth sports organizations (club and other nonschool sports). Parents and athletes are required every year for every sport to receive a concussion information sheet similar to the interscholastic version. Although the law does not require it, a youth sports organization should consider asking parents to sign for it. Additionally, coaches and referees involved in youth sports must either hold a PAP or successfully complete every three years an online training program, provided by the ODH, on recognizing the symptoms of concussions and other head injuries.

Although the law provides some liability protection for coaches and referees who follow these rules, what about the board members who oversee the schools and youth sports organizations, usually on a volunteer basis? With so many athletes, parents, guardians, coaches and referees, who is keeping track of all these forms and certifications to document compliance? Will compliance with the new law also meet privacy requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA)? What is your organization doing?

For guidance on developing best practices to meet the new requirements, contact an attorney at Nicola, Gudbranson & Cooper.

—Arthur L. (Tim) Clements III