Arizona mandates concussion exam for athletes

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Randy Hill has covered the NBA for 25 years in Southern California and Arizona.

August 16, 2011

Harold Slemmer, Dr. Javier Cardenas and Michael Bidwill (via video) introduce the AIA’s new Brainbook program.

A mission statement — more like a battle cry — designed by adults who preside over youth sports programs typically reads something like this:

Play hard. Play smart. Play together.

On the doorstep of another scholastic sports year, we now offer an example of playing smart and together. The teams involved are the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA), Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center and the Arizona Cardinals.

For some bottom-line context, we present Cardinals president Michael Bidwill.

“It’s important that we try to protect the kids that are watching us on Sunday,” Bidwill said Tuesday morning — via video feed from NFL headquarters in New York City — during a press conference that co-starred Harold Slemmer of the AIA and Dr. Javier Cardenas, a neurologist and brain-injury expert at Barrow.

The kids Bidwill referenced are an estimated 100,000 Arizona high school athletes, who — effective immediately — will be required to pass an online educational “module” designed to increase awareness on the dangerous effects of traumatic brain injury. The program will be available for athlete consumption at school or on a home computer.

Before dismissing this directive as a participation nuisance, chew on a few numbers provided by Barrow:

* Ninety percent of concussions occur without a loss of consciousness.

* Athletes who sustain one concussion are at increased risk for further injury.

* Arizona ranks second in the nation for traumatic brain injury.

* Approximately 3 million sports-related concussions occur nationally each year.

* Approximately 7,000 Arizona high school students suffer a concussion each year.

So, being concussed is no prerequisite for failing to understanding the need to educate trainers, coaches, parents and athletes in regard to the long-term damage caused by sports-related brain injury. And, thanks to the NFL’s controversial upgrade of (hopefully) brain-saving rule enforcement, the sporting public has been put on concussion notice the past couple of years.

But while 28 states (including ours) have passed laws requiring concussion legislation and post-concussion safeguards, Arizona is the first to create a mandatory, online course for high school athletes.

“It’s going to be in place and ready to go,” Slemmer said of Brainbook, the aforementioned educational module designed to resemble a social-media network, “and all student-athletes in Arizona that participate in AIA-sanctioned programs will be required to take this course as soon as possible.”

And those who don’t?

“It would be like any other AIA bylaw,” Slemmer said. “There would be a rules infraction, and they would have to go back and correct that.”

Beyond educating athletes on how to identify when they’ve actually sustained a brain injury, Brainbook’s mandate includes teaching kids — through educational content, activities and videos — that being tough doesn’t require playing when you’re at risk for long-term damage.

The program also will include a registry of athletes who suffer concussions. In concert with increasing brain-injury awareness among coaches (that program began last year), the AIA-Barrow plan has created higher recovery standards that must be satisfied as an athlete begins the gradual return to competition.

What it doesn’t have, according to Cardenas, is information leading to increased awareness of how improvement in sport-specific technique can help the athlete avoid that first concussion.

“The intent would be to reduce those second concussions,” Cardenas said. “You can’t prevent all concussions … we know that. The most important thing is that you recover from the first concussion.”