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Bill aims to expand concussion recovery period

Milan Simonich
The Santa Fe New Mexican
Former Detroit Lions quarterback Eric Hipple undergoes an MRI on his brain on April 19, 2013, in Detroit. A new state law that goes into effect Thursday in New Mexico bars young student-athletes with concussions from participating in sports for 10 days. Over the last several years, the NFL has changed its concussion policies, and many athletic programs have implemented similar policies.

SANTA FE — Shawn Nieto, a running back at Cleveland High School in Rio Rancho, may have more influence than any lobbyist as state legislators decide whether to strengthen concussion protocol for players from the pee-wee level to senior high.

Shawn and his parents sued his school district so he could play in the state championship game last fall after the Cleveland High staff had ruled him out because of a concussion. Shawn said he wasn't injured. A judge sided with him based on incomplete medical information, including whether Shawn had lost consciousness after being tackled.

Though Shawn suited up for the title game, his coaches were of no mind to gamble with his health, state championship or not. They only let Shawn on the field for one play, and he didn't touch the ball.

His case captured the attention of sports fans across New Mexico, including Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen. Sanchez said he began to wonder about the adequacy of the existing state law that prohibits a high school athlete who is concussed from participating in sports for seven days.

Sanchez decided the recovery period was too short. His bill to hold out players with a concussion for a minimum of 10 days unanimously cleared the Senate Education Committee in a 7-0 vote Friday.

"What happened in Rio Rancho got me thinking about this issue," Sanchez said. "Some people believed we should make it 14 days. Ten became the compromise."

The bill in New Mexico is part of a national discussion on player safety, especially in collision sports such as football and rugby. The National Football League, which 20 years ago said concussions were infrequent and were not a long-term health concern for its players, has changed its position and its policies. The NFL now requires on-the-spot medical evaluations of players who may have a concussion. Those diagnosed with a brain injury cannot return to the field until they have medical clearance. Colleges, high schools and youth programs are implementing similar protections.

Sanchez's bill extends to nonscholastic youth athletic activities. Organized teams, such as those in Little League Baseball and youth soccer programs, would also have to follow the state protocol for brain injuries.

The Education Committee chairman, Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, said work needs to be done in notifying youth leagues about what the bill would require. Sanchez said organizers in many youth athletic programs know about his initiative and none has complained.

A slide showing how a concussion assessment tool is used effectively is presented at an NFL Health and Safety Press Conference on Jan. 29 in Phoenix. New Mexico Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez has introduced a bill in the state Legislature that would prohibit players with concussions from participating in sports for at least 10 days. Over the last several years, the NFL has changed concussion policies and now requires on-the-spot medical evaluations of players with possible concussions and medical clearance before athletes can return to the field. Many colleges, high school and youth programs have followed suit and implemented similar policies.

In addition to Shawn Nieto's case, Sanchez said, he decided a longer healing period for concussions should be mandated based on the experience of a former state legislator with an impressive background in sports.

Clint Harden, a Republican who once represented the Clovis area in the Senate, said he was knocked cold in the first half of a high school football game in the 1960s. Harden was a star quarterback, and his coach at La Junta High School in Colorado sent him out to play the second half.

In an interview Friday, Harden said he was so disoriented he kept calling the same play again and again. His teammates knew he had a significant head injury, even if his coach didn't.

The lack of treatment for Harden was typical of those times. After high school, Harden went on to play quarterback for the U.S. Naval Academy and the University of Utah. He is still a fixture at the New Mexico Capitol as a lobbyist. Now, he said, he wonders if problems with his balance could be traced to too many collisions on football fields without a chance for brain injuries to heal.

Sanchez's bill on concussion protocol goes next to the Senate Judiciary Committee. A similar bill to protect young players after a concussion was introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park. McCamley's bill has not received a committee hearing and likely will not advance.