January 28, 2014 10:43:47 AM
JACKSON -- Ben Williams knows about the hard knocks of football and the pressure athletes put on themselves to compete, even with injuries.
For those reasons, he's supporting a proposed Mississippi law that would require public and private schools to evaluate student athletes for concussion after they're shaken up during practice or competition. A player with a concussion would be banned from play until fully recovered.
Williams, a Yazoo City native, played football at Ole Miss in the early 1970s and for the NFL's Buffalo Bills from 1976-86. He said athletes need careful evaluation if they're hit hard enough to possibly have a head injury.
"They want to play," Williams said. "They like the game. They like the contact. They like it a lot."
The Mississippi House and Senate have both passed House Bill 48. It awaits action by Gov. Phil Bryant. The governor had not received the bill by Friday and he will evaluate it before deciding whether to sign it into law, spokeswoman Nicole Webb said.
The bill was pushed by the NFL and the Mississippi State Medical Association and supported by associations that govern school activities. The National Sports Concussion Coalition -- with members from youth, college and professional sports, including the NFL and the NCAA -- says Mississippi is the last state without a youth concussion law to set standards for medical evaluation and return to play.
Dr. Lee Voulters, a neurologist at Gulfport Memorial Hospital and co-chairman of board of trustees for Mississippi State Medical Association, said children and teenagers' brains are more pliable than adults, which means the younger people are at greater risk of concussion.
"There are tens of thousands of concussions in this country with sports every year," Voulters said. "And as it stands now, with the programs in place, NFL players and college players have a lot more protection and safety protocols in place than high school football players do in this state."
The bill would not cover sports teams that are not affiliated with schools, such as youth soccer or volleyball leagues.
"I just thought that was too much of a responsibility and too much burden on our volunteer coaches, which are moms and dads," said House Public Health Committee Chairman Sam Mims, R-McComb, one of the bill's sponsors.
Mims' committee killed bills in 2012 and 2013 that would've required youth sports organizations unaffiliated with schools to adopt policies for concussion screening. He said he had worked "very closely" the past several months with leaders of the Mississippi High School Activities Association, which governs public schools' activities, and the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools, which governs private schools' activities, to find a plan they support.
The bill specifies that failure to follow a concussion policy doesn't give reason for people to sue a school, school district, activities association, or medical professional. It also specifies the Mississippi State Department of Health must endorse a concussion education course to provide information to the public.
MHSAA lists concussion guidelines on its website that are nearly identical to the bill that passed. Where the guidelines say a player "should" be removed from play, evaluated and given time to fully recover, the bill says those things "shall" happen. The association requires students and parents to sign forms to acknowledge that concussions are possible in sports. The forms also list concussion symptoms.
"It's about minimizing risk," MSHAA director Don Hinton said Friday.
Les Triplett, activities director for MAIS, said policies already in place take care of most of what a new law would mandate.
"Anything that brings attention to safety, we're for it," Triplett said.
Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, who once coached soccer at a Catholic school, supported the bill.
"As a coach, I'm concerned about their well-being. and I want to do everything that I can," Wiggins said. "If they're saying, 'Do A, B, C, D and E,' and sit them out and then return them only at the proper time, I'm all for that."