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Congress seeks to reduce head injuries in youth sports

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), right, and Rep. Bill Pascell (D-N.J.), are sponsoring the Concussion Treatment and Care Tools Act (ConTACT). With them on Capitol Hill is Niki Popyer, a New Jersey student who had to give up basketball after 11 concussions.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), right, and Rep. Bill Pascell (D-N.J.), are sponsoring the Concussion Treatment and Care Tools Act (ConTACT). With them on Capitol Hill is Niki Popyer, a New Jersey student who had to give up basketball after 11 concussions. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/associated Press)

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By Paul Tenorio
Wednesday, December 16, 2009

As the handling of concussions and head injuries has moved to the forefront in the NFL this year, Congress now is seeking to step in with legislation aimed at reducing the frequency of those injuries in youth and high school sports.

In a news conference Tuesday on Capitol Hill, Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) outlined the Concussion Treatment and Care Tools (ConTACT) Act, which aims to establish guidelines in schools for the treatment and diagnosis of concussions and emphasizes the importance of base-line diagnostic testing at the youth levels before athletes participate in contact sports.

Representatives from the NFL Players Association, including two former NFL players and two student-athletes who suffer from the long-term effects of concussions, were there to back the bill, which Pascrell hopes can develop mandatory guidelines within the next two years.

"Many college and professional athletics associations, including the NFL, have all adopted guidelines for the management of concussions," said Pascrell, the original sponsor of the act. "Much of this information has not made its way to our local middle schools and high schools. . . . The ConTACT Act is designed to provide our schools and coaches with the tools needed to ensure that student-athletes receive the proper care for concussions regardless of the sport they play. The ConTACT act provides for the establishment of a consensus set of guidelines that work for schools and coaches that will be established by professionals, not the Congress."

Niki Popyer, an 18-year-old New Jersey native who suffered 11 concussions in four years and was forced to give up basketball, and Abby Cahalan, 13, of Baltimore, who suffered a concussion playing soccer in February 2008, spoke about the difficulties they experienced both in diagnosing the concussions and the subsequent treatment.

Popyer, who suffered her first concussion diving for a loose ball when she was in seventh grade, said her concussions were never properly diagnosed and that she often returned to the basketball court after only a few weeks. She said she has suffered from several lingering issues, including chronic headaches, and has had to transition slowly back into school where she sometimes struggles to make it through a whole day.

"My parents took me to different doctors and each one told me something else," Popyer said. "As long as they didn't tell me not to play, I kept playing. I never really acknowledged how I felt. . . . What I want other kids like me to know is it's much easier or better to miss a month, or a season, or even a year than it is to have your whole life change."

George Atallah, assistant executive director of external affairs for the NFLPA, said he hoped the recent actions by the NFL and its players would help create a trickle-down effect about the proper way to handle a concussion.

The NFL recently ordered that each team must consult with independent neurologists when dealing with head injuries. And as marquee stars such as Eagles running back Brian Westbrook, Redskins running back Clinton Portis, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner missed time due to head injuries, the impact of those players staying on the sideline could spread beyond the professional sports realm.

"I think so, I think it does," Atallah said. "The thing that we're pushing for and fighting for is a standardized process and individual care, that combination. If there is a standardized process for return to play, which the NFL has started, and they get the right individual care, because as they mention each head injury is different, then you'll start seeing a much broader trickle down. But it's sent a message."


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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